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Is Giving Up Gluten Really Necessary?

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Cutting out gluten has gotten downright trendy lately. I’m sure you know at least a few people by now who’ve given up gluten without being diagnosed with Celiac disease (the autoimmune condition triggered by consumption of gluten). Wherever you do your grocery shopping, you are likely seeing an increase in the number of “gluten-free” products. And, even products that seem completely unrelated to gluten (like popcorn and cheese) are starting to bear the “gluten-free” label.

Sometimes it feels like “gluten-free” must mean “healthy.” And, though you’re open-minded and have possibly even tried cutting out gluten yourself, you still feel unsure about the whole thing. I mean, people have been eating gluten for a long time. Sure, it’s not long compared to the hunter-gatherer era…but still. People ate gluten for centuries with no huge issues. Why is it different now?

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 9.51.21 PMPlus, Christianity and other religions consider bread a sacred food. It holds meaning for you – both in your religious traditions and in your seasonal celebrations. It’s also a staple food – the food of the people. It’s inexpensive, filling, and versatile. And, let’s face it, not much tastes better than fresh homemade bread.

Sure. Some people have a serious reaction to the stuff, but is there really any reason for the rest of us to make such a major life adjustment? Is cutting out gluten something the average person should try?

Two Strikes Against Gluten, Plus One Gutsy Conclusion

Let me say up front: I don’t think that gluten is inherently bad for our bodies. And, I don’t think that everyone necessarily needs to cut it out completely.

Yet, there are TWO basic reasons that keep bringing me to this gutsy conclusion: everyone could benefit from cutting out gluten for a trial period.*

Reason #1: We Are Not Eating the Same Wheat Our Ancestors Did

Wheat and the way that we consume it has changed over the past century. Wheat used to be treated in special ways that made it more digestible – fermenting it to make sourdough, soaking it with a little acid (lemon or vinegar) overnight, or sprouting it. These small changes made a major difference in our bodies’ ability to digest the proteins in wheat.

The wheat we eat now is primarily high-yield dwarf wheat, which is lower in vitamins and minerals than the different varieties of wheat eaten by our ancestors. Furthermore, it’s more highly processed and refined, removing portions of the wheat resulting in white (often bleached) flour. You can read more about all this HERE.

Perhaps the most convincing of all, modern wheat is treated with chemicals that are linked to both Celiac disease and autism (you can read more about that HERE). The key player here is glysophate, which is the active chemical in the herbicide Roundup. Over the past 15 years, it has become common practice to use Roundup on wheat crops just before harvest.

When we refer to wheat in this day and age, we are talking about a completely different entity than what generations before us ate as a staple in their diets. Even though some varieties of wheat – untreated by chemical, minimally processed into flour – may be perfectly healthy, the wheat most people are consuming in America is questionable at best. 

Reason #2: Gluten’s Effects Are Sneaky

Gluten sensitivities are not, for the most part, like well-known allergies that cause immediate, undeniable reactions. In fact, the reactions our bodies have to wheat may not appear for a long time, may begin suddenly even though we’ve been eating wheat our whole lives, and may seem completely unrelated to digestion.

Gluten’s effects are extremely sneaky. Here are few examples and a few explanations for the mysterious ways of wheat.

  • Gluten, even in healthy folks, triggers the release of zonulin which has the effect of widening the gaps between the cells that line the small intestine. In a damaged or compromised gut, this can lead to larger compounds slipping through the gut lining, entering the blood stream, and causing problems in other parts of the body. (Read more HERE.)
  • This type of compromised gut lining often called “leaky gut” is one of the necessary conditions for developing an autoimmune condition. If you have an autoimmune disease, you can be sure your gut has suffered damage and gluten is not helping your cause. (Read more HERE.)
  • Gluten has a strong tie to thyroid disorders, as gliadin (the protein in gluten) greatly resembles thyroid cells. (Read more HERE.)
  • Because gliadin can enter the blood stream through a damaged gut lining, gluten sensitivity has been traced to multitude of symptoms and diagnoses – many of which have nothing to do with digestion. Here’s a short list: gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, foggy thinking, keratosis pilaris (rough patches on backs of arms), thyroid disorders, fatigue, PCOS, PMS, headaches, migraines, inflammation, mood disorders, diabetes. (Read more HERE.)
  • Finally, gluten even has an opioid effect on the brain, causing a pleasing sensation from eating it and an increased appetite for wheat (read more HERE). This can actually make it really hard to give up gluten and can contribute to convincing you that gluten probably has no negative effects for you. Sneaky, sneaky, sneaky…right?!

A couple of years ago, my sister developed unexplained symptoms fairly suddenly. She was kind enough to share a piece of her story with us here:

About three years ago, I suddenly started having strong negative reactions to food, but I didn’t know what in particular was causing these intense digestive issues. After some research on my symptoms, I decided to eliminate the top inflammatory foods and wheat was on the list. I almost didn’t include it because I was certain it would not be the culprit. I didn’t believe that being intolerant to gluten was a real thing. I grew up learning that whole wheat was good for you, so I thought people were exaggerating when they said wheat upset their stomachs. How could a good thing, even a biblical thing, cause people problems? However, for the few weeks that I was off these inflammatory foods, my headaches, toothaches, and stomach pains began to disappear. I felt stronger, healthier, and more like myself again. Then, I slowly began adding foods back one at a time. The day after I added gluten back all of my symptoms returned in full force. It was evident to me that gluten caused this reaction. – Savanah Nisbett Landerholm

What About You?

Maybe you’ll be one of the ones whose bodies seem able to handle gluten without a hitch, but I still think it’s worth asking the question. And, in my opinion, it’s worth testing it out. Although some reactions to gluten can last for up to six months, I think 4-6 weeks is a good trial period.

If you’re one of those people who just needs hard science and numbers and such. Running some lab tests to get some official results is the way to go. To get accurate results for gluten and any foods that are cross-reactive with gluten, you’ll have to have those foods in your diet at the time of the test. Cross-reactive foods include dairy, soy, other grains, and chocolate (oh yes, here’s yet another way gluten is sneaky, bringing some friends along with it to the party…).

Join Us For a Family-Friendly Challenge This Summer

Doing a gluten-challenge is NOT just about replacing bread products with gluten-free ones. There’s a better way! We’ll have lots of guidance and support for you this July, if you’d like to do your gluten-free challenge or try again after an attempt in the past. Sign up now for the  Family-Friendly Challenge coming up in July

If you’d like to run some tests to find out if you have a gluten sensitivity, you can find out more and purchase the tests HERE….My fee is down to $99 (usually $150) for the month of June in preparation for the July challenge.

What Do You Think?

Well…what do you think? Does this answer your questions? I’d love to answer more questions in the comments below. I’ve actually had a few roll in already, so I’ll be addressing those in the comments throughout the week…

*This assumes that the person can replace gluten with enough healthy, real foods to meet their dietary requirements. I’m not suggesting that people give up gluten if they cannot afford other healthy replacement foods.

My name is Candace McCallister. I am the founder of Sweet Water Offering, a holistic health enterprise to support women and families to heal naturally. My background is in biology, counseling, bodywork, and nutrition. My husband and I are helping to start an intentional Christian community in Little Rock, AR. We have three lively and beautiful children.


  • SweetWaterOffering

    One question that has come up is: Do you have to be completely gluten-free to get the benefits or is it still beneficial to your health to reduce your gluten intake?

    Here’s my answer:
    if you have a gluten-sensitivity or celiac disease, you will respond to even very small amounts of gluten. In this case, you will have to cut it out completely to see lasting health benefits. Many people may even need several weeks or months for the reactions to end completely. And, healing from any damage done may take even longer.

    For people who do not have a sensitivity or celiac, then reducing the amount you eat is a great strategy. In this way, you increase your intake of other high-nutrient foods and reduce your intake of chemicals and processed foods. For many people who do not react to wheat, replacing the wheat they have been eating with healthier, more digestive forms of wheat can be really helpful. These strategies include buying Einkorn wheat (an ancient form of wheat), soaking or fermenting the flour (sourdough) before using it, or using sprouted wheat flour. Many people who cannot tolerate modern wheat, handle it fine when they use these strategies.

    For my family, I have found that it is very expensive for us to cut out wheat for the long term. I personally do not handle it well, so I avoid it as much as possible. My kids, however, do not seem to react to it. So, I have greatly reduced their wheat intake, but I still make homemade baked goods for them fairly often. I also do not stress about it too much when we’re with other people. I hate the feeling that I’m being overly controlling or “helicopter mom” about their food. There are certain things (like food dyes) that I know will have an immediate effect, so I am very restrictive on those. But, with wheat, I generally hope that they get lots of healthy food at home, and they”ll be able to handle it okay when they eat processed wheat occasionally.

    I do, however, cut it out of their diets completely from time to time. Like this July! 🙂 They’ll all be participating in the July Challenge. I just talk to them and prepare them for it, and they do pretty well. It helps for them to have a starting and ending time for the challenge.

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