Should You Go Gluten-Free?

Photograph of 4 gluten sources. Top: High-glut...

Photograph of 4 gluten sources. Top: High-gluten wheat flour. Right: European spelt. Bottom: Barley. Left: Rolled rye flakes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Disclaimer – I’d just to like remind my readers that I am not a medical professional, not a dietician or nutritionist, nor am I any kind of medical or health care authority. None of the information below or in any other blog post on Life Despite Lupus is meant to replace professional medical advice and care.

I have always been highly skeptical of “miracle” diets and crazy food combinations. At this point I’m sure everyone’s heard of them – how juicing can cure all your ailments, or if you only drink lemon water and eat cucumbers you can fix your blood’s PH levels and how you can totally subsist off of grapefruit and cottage cheese, or dripping rare steak and potatoes. Ask ten people for diet advice and you’ll be sure to walk away with twenty or more plans to try.

What does “gluten-free” mean?

Gluten is protein typically found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. While for most people, it doesn’t cause any harm, to those with Celiac’s Disease or a gluten sensitivity, this protein and the foods that contain it can cause serious and painful symptoms. Gluten-free foods are simply products that have replaced gluten-containing foods with alternatives that don’t contain gluten. It sounds simple, but once you begin really reading your favorite product’s nutrition labels, you quickly find that gluten is lurking in many foods you never imagined contained wheat. My biggest surprises were finding gluten in just about every sauce, condiment and soup on my supermarket shelf (flour is typically used to thicken liquid products) and processed meats (pepperoni? Say it ain’t so!)

The gluten-free debate

Sausages may contain gluten via fillers or bin...

Sausages may contain gluten via fillers or binders such as Butcher’s Rusk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like anything else, each side has its supporters and detractors. Supporters of a gluten-less diet point to diseases like Celiac’s Disease and sister-diets such as the Paleo diet as proof that our bodies just weren’t meant to process the sheer amount of gluten that is typical in our diets now. One of my favorite TV chefs, Marcus Samuelsson, actually has a great post on his website about the gluten debate, which outlines some good points such as the fact that how our wheat is processed for consumption now is vastly different (though not necessarily better) than how our ancestors made the grain safe to eat. And, of course, there are plenty of celebrities who are actively endorsing a gluten-free lifestyle (though personally, I think doing anything just because someone on tv does it is just dumb). The anecdotal evidence, while not scientific, is if anything, overwhelming.

Detractors point to lack of conclusive research to support that gluten is actively harmful to the average person, some implying that going gluten-free can actually be more harmful than helpful. Some of the red flags mentioned include the fact that going gluten-free, like any other restrictive diet, might also result in cutting out necessary vitamins and minerals. Also, there are very few, if any, studies that specifically link gluten alone to illnesses (with the exception of Celiac’s) and critics are quick to point out that other ingredients found in food could be the culprits instead.

Should you go gluten-less?

I finally decided to go gluten-free as part of desperation move to better my health. The change came part and parcel of a detox/cleanse program which included also omitting eggs, all dairy, all refined sugar, nightshade vegetables (sometimes assumed to increase inflammation in autoimmune illnesses), peanuts and some other things. Along with this dietary change, I was also taking a cleanse powder (kinda like a multivitamin in powder form, mixed into a shake) and digestive enzyme supplements – all in addition to my normal, doctor-prescribed medications. I’m on week 4 now and have noticed many positive changes: my blood pressure has dropped back into the normal range, my cholesterol plummeted, blood sugar improved and I’ve lost a few pounds. I got a bunch of energy back. Sounds like a good deal, right?

However – there’s nothing to suggest that any of these changes are only because of omitting gluten. At the same time I also cut out as much processed food as possible, opting for raw nuts and fruits as snacks instead of crackers and cheeses (though I really miss cheese). After reading some articles about the nutritional value of kale and other dark leafy greens, I started having more of those. I recently cooked eggplant for the first time, substituting that for pasta in my own version of rollatini. All these other changes are factors that can’t be ignored when it comes to improving your health and diet.

The Verdict

Before choosing whether or not to try going gluten-free ask yourself: What does “gluten-free” look like to you? Like veganism, if you’re planning to simply swap out your normal gluten-stuffed, sugar-loaded, chemical-laden and highly processed foods with, well, simply gluten-free highly processed foods, then you probably aren’t going to get very far. Processed food is still processed food and processed food is likely never going to have the same complex, nutritional combination of enzymes, minerals and vitamins that are found in natural foods.

However, if you don’t have a gluten sensitivity (and this is something to check with your doctor) then having a bit of bread with a diet of veggies, lean meats and a low amount of processed foods probably won’t kill you. But going gluten-free can also be a good start for weeding highly processed foods out of your diet and expanding your palate with new grains such as quinoa or millet.

Have you gone gluten-free? What changes have you noticed? What tips would you give for someone deciding to go gluten-free or not?

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6 thoughts on “Should You Go Gluten-Free?

  1. Hello, I’m a lupus warrior too and have been on this path my entire adult life (I’m 48). I was diagnosed with RA at 12 and then it shifted to SLE at 15. Didn’t get serious (life-threatening and then Immuran really nearly killed me) until I was 21. I just saw your blog from a friend who is very recently diagnosed. Anyway I mostly wanted to offer some feedback about your diet. I too am gluten-free, dairy free (cheese was my greatest love!) nightshade -free and some other things too (legumes… and more recently all grains except white rice). Anyway I wanted to point out that *eggplant* is a nightshade and in my experience a very strong nightshade. I had a decade where I slacked off, eating stuff like tomato and potato, corn, legumes (soy even!) and the slippery slope from sheep and goat cheese to a little bit of cow). But eggplant is very clearly a high solanin and highly reactive nightshade. So If you are looking for a pasta substitute I would recommend something else! Also I don’t know if you know this but alfalfa sprouts are well known to cause a kind of “drug induced lupus” and also silica (so watch your supplements). I only just learned about silica causing lupus (and I’m using that word carefully) form Dr Michelle Petri at Johns Hopkins, last year.

    My dietary exploration began @ 20 with the usual allergy type diets and then candida but in 1988/9 I met an amazing doctor here in Australia who had published a paper on dietary interventions in 130 patients with Lupus. That diet has been the center of my nutritional approach for the past 25 years (even when I slacked off I was strictly gluten free the whole time … except for accidental and that was obvious). I am having my first renal flare in 25 years and a recurrence of childhood eczema and some joint pain and vasculitiis. the diet didnt “cure” my SLE but I am convinced it resolved alot of Sx (like joint pain) and raised my general level of health tremendously. Even the very conservative nephrologist admitted that it was amazing that I had not been on any medication since 2000 (13 years of prednisone and cyclophosphamide for renal lupus in 1990). She siad “I guess it’s because you take such good care of yourself”. I found the book Perfect Health Diet (Jaminet and Jaminet) last year and they were able to elaborate on alot of the things my original doctor, Chris J. Reading, was saying all those years ago. He really was way ahead of his time and I consider myself exceptionally fortunate to have met him.

    Anyway, if you are interested in exploring nutrition, diet and lupus from my experience I would be happy to communicate with you by email.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Hi Penelope, Just read your reply here, and if you are willing, I would LOVE to be able to contact you via email!! I was diagnosed with autoimmune hep 15 yrs ago, then SLE (kidneys) 9 years ago, and now Graves’ disease as of just the last few weeks. I honestly cannot continue like this anymore — living in fear of yet another autoimmune issue. Fortunately, steroids and cellcept have suppressed the liver and kidney issues, but obviously there is still autoimmune activity with me, given the new diagnosis. I have been researching diet changes, supplements, anything I can do to see if there really is a “cure” or at least something that will stop the spread of this and even help me lower my meds. Thankfully all the symptoms are currently being controlled by the meds (except for thyroid, I am too scared to start that med as there are tons of side effects).

      Would it be possible to contact you and ask you what you have been doing to get yourself off the meds for so long, and any other advice you might have? I would really appreciate any help — I’ve been going through a tough time these last few months with the thyroid issue. And coincidentally enough, I have also seen Dr. Petri at hopkins (my nephrologist is there as well)!

      Thank you!!

  2. I know that it may seem daunting to make a switch to a diet that is gluten free, but nowadays there does seem to be a lot of really great alternatives that are available at your local supermarket. For one thing, I am a big fan of pita chips and hummus…..actually it is more like anything I have around (carrots, pretzels, etc.) and hummus. Either way, brands like Sabra hummus are actually gluten free, and could be a great choice for anyone who has recently made the switch.

    • I’m a huge fan of Sabra hummus (their roasted pine nut and tahini flavors rock) and I’ve found some nice brands of tortilla chips that are multi-grain and gluten free too, so you’re absolutely right – this is a great go-to snack.

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