Have you jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon, only to give up after a few days? Why is it so hard to avoid that one little piece of birthday cake?
Take heart. If you have had trouble giving up gluten, it’s not because you’re low on willpower. It’s because going gluten-free is not as simple as giving up bread. In this post, I’ll address 5 of the most common struggles people go through when adopting a gluten-free diet.
1. Hidden sources of gluten & cross-contamination
In foods like bread, it can be quite obvious that they contain gluten. But that’s not the case for everything. Is millet gluten-free? What about oats?
If you’re not noticing any change in your symptoms after adopting a gluten-free diet, it’s possible that gluten is still in your diet via a less common source. Fortunately, I’ve written at length on this very topic. You can find detailed information on the hidden sources of gluten (and how to avoid them) in this post.
Cross-contamination occurs when a naturally gluten-free food comes in contact with a food that contains gluten. This often occurs during the stage of processing or packaging. For example, oats are naturally gluten-free. However, if they are processed at a facility that also processes bread or other gluten-containing products, it’s likely that those oats have come in contact with gluten and are no longer gluten-free.
To best avoid this cross-contamination, ensure all of the grains your purchase are certified gluten-free. This guarantees your product has not come in contact with gluten. If you think this sounds neurotic, consider that a study of 22 naturally gluten-free products found that 7 of 22 samples contained more gluten than is allowed in the proposed rules for gluten-free labeling in the US (1)
2. Eating out & convenience
There’s no way around this topic. Eating out while on a gluten-free diet is a pain. Our culture strongly values social connection around food. If you’re following a gluten-free diet for the long-term, there will be regular invitations to have dinner at a friend’s house or to meet friends at a restaurant.
I’ve broken this section down into two parts: eating at a friends house and eating at a restaurant. There are unique challenges/obstacles to each so I’ll tackle them separately.
The first step before heading to a restaurant is proper planning. I always recommend calling the restaurant before your planned meal. Does this restaurant have a gluten-free menu? If they do, you know that their wait-staff will at least have some knowledge around a gluten-free diet. It’s also likely that the kitchen staff know the best practices to keep your meal from being exposed to gluten.
Most restaurants are gluten-aware, not gluten-free. A gluten-aware restaurant still deals with foods that contain gluten. While they do their best to ensure gluten does not come in contact with your food, this is not a guarantee. There is a real possibility of your food coming into contact with gluten. Deep fryers and cutting boards are two areas where your food could come into contact with gluten.
While most menu items will be obvious if they contain gluten or not, there are others that can be challenging to identify. This typically occurs in sauces or dressings where a gluten-containing product is often used. Ensure you communicate to the wait-staff that you have an allergy (not a sensitivity). This way they’ll take your concern seriously and properly inquire about which menu items have gluten hidden in them.
If your city is fortunate enough to have a gluten-free restaurant, be grateful. These are still a rarity. A gluten-free restaurant is just that, they process no gluten on their premises. Ever. Meaning, you can enjoy anything off the menu with no risk of encountering gluten.
In Canada, eating at a friends house can be more challenging than eating at a restaurant. Our strong urge to be polite often overtakes our dietary needs. The simplest way to overcome the challenge of eating at a friend’s house is to bring a gluten-free dish. This way, you can guarantee you will have something to eat.
If your friend is not experienced in gluten-free cooking, it is best to recommend simple meat and vegetable dishes. Ali and I once went for an amazing mushroom lasagna at a friends house. Our friend found gluten-free lasagna noodles but didn’t realize that the Campbells mushroom soup contained wheat.
If the meal is going to contain a mixture of both gluten-free and glutenous products, I would recommend ensuring that there is a designated gluten-free serving utensil. This will ensure there is no cross-contamination between products.
3. Gluten is (likely) addictive
Does the thought of giving up pastries or bread bring about feelings of anxiety? You’re not alone. For many, the thought of giving up gluten is an action they can’t bear to think about, let alone act on it.
While the research is still inconclusive as to whether gluten is physically addictive, we do know that the digestion of the gluten protein creates several morphine-like substances. (2)
Did you catch that?
Yes, the digestion of gluten can form morphine-like substances. These morphine-like substances are known as gluten exorphins. There’s still much to be learned about gluten exorphins. But they have been shown to help decrease pain levels (much like any opioid does) and potentially mask the symptoms of celiac disease. (3)
At the time of this writing, it is unknown whether gluten-exorphins cross the blood-brain barrier. If they do, the likelihood of gluten being physically addictive is very high.
While the jury is still out on whether gluten is physically addictive (or not), we do know that gluten-containing foods have a very high glycemic index. Meaning they convert to sugars quite easily. This causes a surge of insulin in our body to help regulate the rising blood sugar. Unfortunately, the quick rise in blood sugar is quickly followed by a corresponding drop. This drop in blood sugar causes the “hangry” feelings we’re likely all familiar with.
Since none of us want to feel hangry, we combat that feeling by eating more food. If this food is also a wheat product, it produces a rapid rise and fall in blood sugars that can have a profound effect on our mood. The yo-yo effect can bring about dependence on gluten to continually raise our blood sugar. Think about the last time you had a muffin and coffee for breakfast – were you hungry an hour later?
To best combat the fluctuations in blood sugar (and the other potentially addictive properties of wheat) I recommend not only giving up gluten but also avoiding the gluten-free alternatives. These gluten-free products alter your blood sugar in much the same way that wheat does. Instead, replace these foods with unprocessed alternatives. Remember, if your food comes in a bag or a box, it’s best avoided.
4. Friends, family, doctors, and social pressures
Gluten-related illness and sensitivities are still treated as second-class medical conditions. What I mean by this is many friends, family, and peer groups just don’t have the necessary information/knowledge to discern whether or not gluten should be avoided. These personal opinions will often result in peer-pressuring towards you consuming gluten. Have you been told by friends or family that your gluten allergy is all in your head?
I know for myself, my grandparents think I’m crazy to avoid bread products. Every time I eat at their house they try to tell me how a little wheat won’t hurt. Does this sound familiar? After starting a gluten-free diet, you’re likely to encounter resistance.
Friends and family aside, you’re likely to also encounter resistance from your medical doctor. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is still a controversial topic in the medical community. Fortunately, a recent study has dispelled this notion. Researchers at Columbia University published a study to determine whether non-celiac gluten sensitivity was real. (4). They enrolled 80 individuals with self-reported non-celiac wheat sensitivity (NCWS), 40 individuals with celiac disease, and 40 healthy subjects for the study.
The findings of the study? NCWS subjects showed increased intestinal permeability compared to healthy subjects. Additionally, the leaky gut caused bacteria and other microbes from inside their gut to leak into the bloodstream. This creates a low-grade, chronic inflammatory response from the immune system. (5)
So the next time your family doctor questions the legitimacy of your gluten sensitivity, show her this study. And the next time your grandparents try to entice into joining them for a slice of toast, remember this study. Your reaction to wheat/gluten is not in your head. It is a legitimate medical condition.
5. It’s expensive
I hear this often in the clinic:
It’s so expensive to follow a Paleo diet.
Gluten-free products cost too much.
Going gluten-free doesn’t have to be expensive. The high cost of going gluten-free occurs when we try to replace inexpensive wheat-based products like bread, pasta, or flours with their gluten-free alternatives. Yes, this is expensive. However, should you replace the wheat-based products with whole foods like fruits and root vegetables, you’ll likely see a decrease in your costs.
If you’ve had laboratory testing that confirms a sensitivity or allergy to gluten, your doctor can write you a note recommending you follow a gluten-free diet. If you have this recommendation, Revenue Canada allows you to write off gluten-free products as a medical expense. For example, if a regular loaf of bread costs $3 and a gluten-free loaf of bread costs $6, the $3 difference between the two can be written off on your annual income tax.
Ok, now you’ve got solutions to the most common reasons your gluten-free diet fails.
It’s time for me to hear from you!
What has been the greatest obstacle you’ve had to overcome in adopting a gluten-free diet?
Also published on Medium.