But while deciding to stop eating gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye (think of it as the glue that holds everything together)—has become trendy in recent years, it's not necessarily the healthiest choice everyone. "Approximately three million Americans have celiac disease, a serious autoimmune condition that is triggered by gluten," says Kimberly Snyder, New York Times bestselling author, nutrition expert, and founder of Solluna.
Outside of those with celiac, some people may have what's known as a non-celiac gluten sensitivity—Tracy Lockwood-Beckerman, RD, puts the number at about 6 percent of the population, as many as 20 million people. These people have tested negative for celiac, but still experience digestive distress when they eat gluten.
If you don't fall into one of the two aforementioned camps, you might be wondering: Well, what happens to your body when you stop eating gluten? Are there benefits to be reaped even if you don't have a sensitivity? Below, Snyder and Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, founder of Real Nutrition, share what you need to know before ditching gluten for good.
So, what are the potential benefits of going gluten-free?
If you have a sensitivity, you'll see an improvement in your digestive health (and more)
"If you are going gluten-free because you have been diagnosed with celiac disease, then you may feel relief of symptoms including GI issues, weight loss, improved nutrient absorption, a decrease in aches and pains and headaches, and increased energy," Shapiro says. "If you have or suspect you have a gluten sensitivity, then removing it may decrease gas and bloating."
It could reduce inflammation
If you don't have celiac, you could also still see your health improve upon giving up gluten. "When you stop eating gluten, you may experience less bloating, lowered inflammation, clearer skin, more energy, and less brain fog," Snyder says. "This is because gluten can trigger inflammation in the small intestine, which leads to a number of issues in the body like poor digestion, difficulty absorbing nutrients, and autoimmune disorders.
Once gluten is out of your system, your gut will have a chance to repair, and your body will be less burdened, freeing up more energy to help your body feel great and function optimally."
To learn more about what happens to your body when you stop eating gluten, check out the below episode of You Versus Food.
More things to know before going gluten-free
1. Not everyone needs to follow this fad
Although a gluten-free diet may be #trending, that doesn't mean that it's the best thing for you unless you, indeed, have a gluten intolerance like celiac disease. In fact, if you don't have a gluten intolerance or sensitivity, cutting out gluten entirely from your diet may have adverse effects instead of positive ones. "[Side effects can include] weight gain, increased hunger, and constipation, as many products marked as gluten-free are void of fiber, contain excess calories, and are overly processed," Shapiro says. "If you don't need to eat gluten-free, then you shouldn't," Shapiro says.
Lockwood-Beckerman agrees. "Going gluten-free just for gluten-free’s sake is as much of a trend as fanny packs or those tiny useless sunglasses that everyone seems to be wearing,” she says. “It’s possible you’re losing out on some valuable nutrients.”
Snyder, on the other hand, advocates that everyone should shift to a gluten-free diet—at least for a trial period—because many people have a gluten sensitivity without even knowing it. With a gluten sensitivity, a person can consume a certain amount of gluten before experiencing any side effects, so it's difficult to test and diagnose, Snyder says.
For all these reasons, it's important to talk to your doctor before making the decision to stop eating gluten entirely.
2. Make sure you still get your fiber
If you decide to ditch whole wheat bread and crackers to go gluten-free, you're also losing out on some much-needed fiber, which is essential for staying full and keeping you, ahem, regular. So if you don't bring new, healthy sources of fiber into your diet, you may run into a constipation problem.
To prevent that, Snyder recommends eating more fiber-filled whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, chia seeds, lentils, leafy greens, and gluten-free whole grains. Also, cooking gluten-free friendly meals doesn't have to be hard. Your Instant Pot can help.
3. Take care of your gut health
Once you kick gluten to the curb, your digestion may be going through some adjustments. To give it some love and support and accelerate its healing process, Snyder encourages taking daily probiotics. "The balance of the bacteria in your gut affects your skin and assists with digestion, leading to less congestion and fat storage in the body," she says.
4. Remember: Gluten-free doesn't necessarily equal healthy
One common misconception is that if something is labeled "gluten-free," it's automatically a healthier alternative (we're looking at you, gluten-free cookies). Consider this myth debunked. "These foods are still processed, lack nutrients, and often contain loads of refined sugars, oils, and sodium," Snyder says. "When going gluten-free, focus on substituting with whole, unrefined grains like quinoa, brown rice, and millet, and enjoy whole food snacks like sliced veggies or kale chips, which are naturally free of gluten."
Don't worry, though. Going gluten-free doesn't mean you have to give up your sweet treats forever. Instead of buying them at the store, you can make your own gluten-free goodies at home. Say hello to yummy gluten-free scones, tarts, andmuffins.
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