Gluten-free diet may not be answer for everyone, and must be done right

Cathryn Arndt

I still remember the first time I heard about the gluten-free diet.

It was from a new acquaintance, well before I had changed my focus in college from culinary arts to nutrition. This acquaintance had a new-to-me autoimmune disease called “celiac.” Her problem was with gluten and she went into detail about how rigorous she had to be in checking spices, sauces and food family made for her.

It had made a life-saving difference for her and I was glad but I thought it was a little strange.

I felt sad that this type of “extreme” change had been forced upon her. I was glad I didn’t have to worry about that. I couldn’t imagine anyone volitionally choosing that lifestyle. Little did I know that I would be one of those who “chose” that path too.

As a more popular diet option these days, many people are choosing to go “GF.”

A lot goes into the decision to go gluten-free, though. Before someone jumps off the gluten-free bandwagon, it’s good to realize what gluten is, why it can be a problem and who might actually benefit from going gluten-free.

Another consideration should be the way in which the gluten-free diet is done incorrectly.

So what is gluten?

Gluten is a structural protein in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. Many times we oversimplify the issue and interchange the terms “gluten” and “wheat.” This is largely because the most common source of gluten is wheat.

Because gluten is a structural protein, it has a variety of unique and useful functions, not only in grain food products but also in many other packaged products, cosmetics and medications. Aside from being in breads, pastas, pizzas, and granola bars, gluten can be “hidden” in ice creams, broth and bouillon, spice mixes, processed meats, soy sauces and more.

Thankfully, it has become a little easier to identify sources of gluten on food labels due to new FDA requirements. Allergen statements on the label also help. Despite all that, sources of gluten may still be difficult to identify.

Who has a problem with gluten?

The honest answer is a lot more people than we initially thought. Roughly one in 133 Americans have a specific disease caused celiac. Celiac disease is a genetically inherited autoimmune disease (meaning your immune system begins to attack parts of yourself) that is triggered by eating gluten.

When people with celiac eat gluten (or encounter it in their health and beauty products), the lining of their small intestines becomes seriously inflamed. It may begin subtly but eventually the inflammation cascades into full-blown pain, nutrient deficiencies, weight loss (or gain in some), anemia, skin issues, infertility, behavioral issues in kids and more.

In some individuals, the complications created by the inflammation, dysfunctional immune system and lack of nutrient absorption becomes life-threatening.

Getting an official diagnosis of celiac disease continues to be a longer, somewhat complicated process than we would like. Research says it takes roughly six to 10 years for a person to develop enough symptoms and damage that lead to a diagnosis. The process includes taking a sample of your gut tissue to see the degree of inflammation, as well as looking for genetic markers.

The truth is, though, you don’t have to be diagnosed with celiac to have a problem with gluten. This now is called “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” or NCGS. This describes the growing population of people who have symptoms after ingesting gluten but don’t fall into the celiac camp diagnostically. More and more doctors are understanding that NCGS is a real deal.

Another group of people who may react adversely to gluten are those with autoimmune conditions other than celiac. One reason for this is that autoimmune conditions tend to cluster together. If you have one, you are more susceptible to getting another.

Several autoimmune conditions are particularly associated with celiac disease, including Type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid diseases and Sjögren’s syndrome. This is why I personally made the decision to go gluten-free, given my history of an autoimmune disease.

For individuals who react to gluten, the only way to treat their condition is by a strict, 100-percent gluten-free diet. Complete adherence is a must if healing and symptoms management are to occur.

Heightened awareness of these conditions has made the gluten-free diet more recognized. Media coverage, as well as testimonials of those whose lives have benefited from it, have made it mainstream. In many ways, it is now regarded similarly to many other popular diets used for weight loss, better sleep, better skin, etc.

While the awareness and improved food labeling of gluten-free products is a huge step of progress, I personally find there are a few large mistakes people make when “going gluten-free.”

These mistakes are especially prominent with individuals who treat the “GF” diet like any other weight loss diet. The biggest mistake occurs when people switch out regular gluten-filled processed products for gluten-free processed products.

In times past, when a person went gluten-free, it meant their diets became less processed and filled with more whole foods, including gluten-free grains like rice, quinoa, amaranth, etc. In general, the person’s diet became healthier, full of fiber and fresh produce and less processed overall.

Now, with all the gluten-free products available, going gluten-free means you can still eat the same amount of nutrient-depleted, sugar-filled crackers, pastas, and sweets as you did before. You are left with the same problems that the Standard American Diet (SAD) has.

If this is your approach to the gluten-free diet, I can assure you, you will not experience the benefits that the gluten-free diet can offer you, regardless of whether you have celiac disease or not.

Gluten-free living can indeed be done well, regardless of whether you are adopting it because of a diagnosis or because you just wanted to try it out. Qualified health care professionals can help coach you through the process. Healthy meal plans are available and apps for your phone help in the transition.

Here are a few resources for those who suspect some gluten intolerance or who want support: Celiac Foundation (, the Gluten-Free RN and monthly support group, a local resource in Corvallis (, the Gluten-Free Food Finder App, and Dine Gluten-Free App.

Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She lives in the McDowell Creek area with her husband and daughters, and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or YouTube Channel by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.” Find her blog at