Will Going Gluten-Free Help You Feel Better or Is It Hype?

In 2003, I began reacting to many foods I had not been allergic to previously. My chiropractor recommended I try eating gluten-free to see if it would help. I tried and failed. Miserably. Then I tried again. And again. And again. I simply couldn’t do it. It was too hard. I enjoy eating, baking, and cooking — food is a huge part of enjoying life. To drastically limit that enjoyment was too much.

Fast-forward 19 years. Feeling out of options to help manage my progressing rheumatoid arthritis (RA), I finally did it! July 5, 2022, I took the plunge and went 100% gluten-free at age 52. It changed my life in multiple ways.

Have you tried to eat GF and given up? Do you feel it robs you of your quality of life? Maybe you’re finally ready to try eating gluten-free but don’t know how to do it and whether it will help you feel better or if it’s just hype — the latest fad.

Here is my gluten-free story and the amazing results. I invite you to keep reading to learn more and decide for yourself if it’s worth trying.

Gluten free oatmeal with fruit

Gluten Sensitivity or Food Allergies?

Let’s start with a little background. When I tried going gluten-free for the first time in 2003, there was not much gluten-free information readily available (Google wasn’t what it is today!) and there certainly weren’t many GF flours and foods at the regular grocery store like there are now. So when I tried, I failed. The frustration of eating out with friends, the inability to have a cold beer, or just “be normal” added to the stress. My food sensitivities worsened.

One evening, I doubled over in pain after eating, which led me to an allergist. She performed scratch tests and food serum blood tests, which showed no wheat allergies. (These tests are highly inaccurate for me. Food sensitivities are often oral allergies, which will not show up the same). I did not have celiac disease, so I returned to eating a “normal” diet full of organic wheat cereals, snack bars, crackers, fresh bread, etc.

Little did I know, in my 30s and 40s, that each time I ate or drank gluten, it caused a subtle, internal inflammatory response. Gluten typically affects us internally, in the gut, and it builds up over time to the point where you start to battle “unknown” illnesses and pain. Why?

Why is Gluten So Hard on Us?

Gluten is a protein (gliadin) found in wheat, rye, and barley. In the USA, roughly 60% of the wheat grown is hard red wheat, which is high in gliadin and glutenin proteins. For some people, and probably more than we know, American wheat is hard to digest. We were never really meant to digest gluey, elastic gluten, which is highly resistant to the protease enzymes that break down proteins in your digestive tract. It stresses digestion and can cause tiny perforations in your intestines, termed leaky gut syndrome, and that is really when the trouble ramps up for most of us.

So is being sensitive to gluten a true allergy? For most of us, no. It is a food product that our bodies cannot digest or digest well, causing physical and emotional issues and years of discomfort, disease, and fatigue. These maladies get clumped into diagnoses like depression, autoimmune dysfunction, and stress, leaving many people without answers to why they feel so rough.

Gluten sensitivity is referred to as nonceliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Having this condition is not as life-threatening as being celiac, but because tolerance varies by individual, it’s best to avoid gluten altogether.

Ayoung woman shunning 2 donuts on a plate with a healthy shake in her hand and a plate of salad in front of her.

How Do You Know If You’re Gluten Sensitive?

The hardest part about determining if gluten is an issue for you is that it may not be obvious. It could be playing a role in your fatigue, bloating, constipation, low-functioning thyroid, skin issues, or general achiness but you won’t know until you eliminate it from your diet for a while — by that I mean weeks or even months. A few days won’t cut it.

Additionally, gluten is increasingly shown to play a role in worsening autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), so if you have an autoimmune disease or have been diagnosed immune compromised (which is often the diagnosis given before an autoimmune disease can be fully diagnosed), you may get to a point where it makes sense to cut it out.

The Stigma of Gluten-Free as a “Choice”

There is still an incredible amount of stigma surrounding being a “gluten-free person,” which may stop you from wanting to try it. Many doctors poo-poo it, as does the general public. I see the lack of understanding in coffee shops and restaurants when I ask for a gluten-free menu or if they have any GF options (they usually don’t!). It amazes me how few places take this seriously, especially given the increasing number of kids that must eat GF.

I am often asked if gluten-free is a choice or medically necessary (meaning celiac) and I always respond by saying, “It is definitely not a choice.” Even if I’m not celiac, it is medically necessary to stop my immune system from attacking the gluten, thereby attacking me. I feel like saying, “Why would anyone choose to go GF and give up the convenience of eating whatever they want? Why would I sit here hungry while all my friends enjoy delicious muffins and pastries with their coffee if I didn’t have to?” But that isn’t what they mean and I appreciate them asking and trying to do the right thing.

Roughly 30 Million Americans have been diagnosed with celiac disease and that number is rising (it’s now 5 times greater than in the 1950s). In the US, an estimated 83 percent of people who suffer from celiac disease are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. 

How Do You Go Gluten-Free?

Everyone is different in how they make big changes, but in my case, I simply made up my mind and went gluten-free. I was tired of being bloated and swollen and not having great results from the RA meds and holistic treatments. If it didn’t help, I could return to eating croissants and fresh-baked sourdough bread *sigh* and feel good knowing I tried AGAIN.

1. Start with ready-made food from the grocery store and load up on fresh fruits and veggies.

Off to the grocery store I went. I was amazed by how much GF stuff my regular grocery store stocked. I bought graham crackers, bread, pretzels, saltines, and a flour blend for baking. (Let’s be real — GF people need some quick snacks and things that make us feel less like we’re missing out!) I noticed most of it is NOT organic (total bummer), so I went for the imports (other countries tend to use safer ingredients than the U.S.). I also boosted my veggie and fruit inventory and searched online for gluten-free recipes.

2. Experiment with being gluten-free and then eat a little after a few weeks.

It took a couple of weeks for me to see a difference in how I felt. My pain slowly improved and I didn’t feel as sluggish. I didn’t realize how bloated I was most of the time until it went away. I also lost a few pounds — bonus! When I’d been gluten-free for a few weeks, I ate a couple of regular, organic cookies to see what would happen and to my surprise, my RA pain increased, but my stomach didn’t feel too terrible. Then, a couple of months later, I thoroughly enjoyed a few slices of regular pizza, smiling with glee the entire time. Then BAM! I doubled over with stomach cramps, and within an hour or so, my RA pain went through the roof. I felt sick. It hit me then that my life was forever altered and I cried.

3. Commit to it or not, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t want to do it.

If I wanted to have a better quality of life, I knew I had to commit 100% to being gluten-free. I grieved. I cried. I said the words we’ve all said at some point: “It’s not fair!” I love to cook and bake and pasta is a staple in our house. I felt like one more thing had been taken from me (I had already given up so much due to my RA). Then I did what I do — I bucked up and got on with it. If you decide it’s not for you, that’s okay too. Don’t think of it as a failure. Be proud of yourself for trying something new.

4. Get excited about learning a new skill.

Already an avid baker and cook, I had to learn how to cook and bake with gluten-free ingredients or give up certain things (real-butter croissants and fresh-baked bread … sad face). But, as the months passed, I found the best organic pasta brand — Jovial from Italy — and narrowed the store-bought items to those that were tasty and fit my eating habits. I also learned how to convert most of my baking recipes to gluten-free. Nobody can tell my pumpkin bread, blueberry-lemon bread, cookies, and peppermint brownies are gluten-free. Think of going gluten-free as learning something new!

5. Do not be influenced by what others think. Do what’s right for you!

I know many of my family and friends think going gluten-free was just another health fad for me, as I have done and tried a plethora of natural and holistic therapies to keep my head above water and try to feel my best. However, they are not in my skin or my gut. They do not have to deal with the tightness of my skin when I bloat and swell and the heat that comes off my body when I’m inflamed. My mom and dad still say things like, “Can’t you just have a little?” trying to persuade me to eat donuts and junk food. This is my trip around the sun, and though it is not an easy path, I choose to do what needs to be done to get through this life with less pain and greater health.

Jersey Mike’s has GF sub sandwich buns and they’re so careful about preparing the GF subs separately. It is a pleasure to support their business since they support us GF customers.

 

A selection of gluten free cupcakes

Places You’ll Find Hidden Gluten & Substitutes

  • Alcohol — Yep! Even gin, which comes from juniper berries, starts with grain alcohol. Beer is an obvious no-go. Try corn, potato, or grape vodka, GF beer, or wine.
  • Extracts. Vanilla extract and other flavorings contain alcohol. Make sure the label says gluten-free.
  • Maltodextrin. If it doesn’t say “from corn” on the label, it’s not gluten-free.
  • Soy sauce. Get low-sodium Tamari instead.
  • Barley and malt. Anything malt flavor is from barley. Malted vinegar, for example.
  • Communion wafers. Ask your church if they have a gluten-free option. If not, you can bring your own GF cracker or bread, they will bless it, and you can have a GF communion.
  • Deli meats, sausage, and hot dogs. Lots of additives and gluten. There are many GF brands now; Aidells is one of my favorites.
  • Coffee creamer. Better to stick with pure, organic half and half.
  • Broth and bullion cubes. Look for gluten-free.
  • Soups. Most processed soup has gluten. However, there are many GF brands and even some dairy-free cream soups now.
  • Watch for it in candy, spices, and processed foods. Ensure the label says gluten-free.
  • Oatmeal! Though gluten-free, many brands are processed on the same equipment as wheat cereal. Get GF oatmeal when possible.
  • Buckwheat flakes ARE GF. It’s actually a fruit. Buckwheat makes great pancakes, hot cereal, and there is a cold cereal brand that’s delicious (Arrowhead Mills).
  • Corn products are okay, just make sure there are no wheat additives.
  • Brown rice is a great GF option as a side, as are potatoes, yams, and sweet potatoes (unless you avoid nightshades).

This post from the Gluten Free Society is a must-read as a super source of info!

 

People with a gluten intolerance also have a high rate of other food allergies, including milk and dairy, nuts, and seafood. For the most thorough list of meaningful statistics, be sure to read this blog: Gluten Free Diet Statistics 2024 | Surprising Facts & Data

 

Fresh fruit, veggies, and nuts filling the frame of the picture.

 

Going GF Improved My Thyroid Function

One year into my gluten-free journey, I had another happy health improvement … I healed my thyroid. It took some time and a process of elimination to figure out why I began having hyperthyroid symptoms (rather than hypothyroid) and it turns out, I did not need the same amount of bio-identical thyroid! I went from 18 mg to 15 mg to 6 mg. I had been on thyroid supplements or meds since the age of seventeen and though I knew gluten was a major thyroid disrupter, I never thought about how stopping it would impact my thyroid. I figured my thyroid was slow and that was that. I was wrong!

Most people will have a unique experience with a gluten-elimination food plan. It is an all-or-nothing endeavor, as even the tiniest amount of gluten will have an impact. Some people reverse major health issues, some lose weight, and others simply feel better daily. Whatever your reasoning, don’t let nay-sayers deter you, as long as you eat a healthy, well-balanced diet of organic fresh veg, fruit, brown rice, poultry, and seafood, and drink plenty of high-quality fluids, you should see a favorable result.

Gluten-Free Forever

Going gluten-free has helped my health in countless ways. There is no going back and I say that with relief. My inflammation is down, my concentration as a writer is better, my pain has reduced greatly, bloating is rare, overall digestion is more predictable, and I feel “lighter,” less sluggish. Even my skin is clearer.

Don’t get me wrong, I still long for certain foods, but I DO NOT miss the extra inflammation and stomach issues. It is worth the sacrifice, and it is getting easier and easier to live in a gluten-free world. I encourage you to try it and see how you feel. You may be cranky, hungry, and feel blah at first, but that will improve. It’s normal to feel out of sorts when you make a big dietary change, but I’m willing to bet the result will be worth it.

As part of the Healthy Writer Life community, I know you can do anything you set your mind to, especially if it improves your well-being. We beat the odds daily by being self-motivated self-starters who persist even in the hardest times. Best of luck!


The text, graphics, images, and other material on the Healthy Writer Life website are for informational and educational purposes only and not a substitute for professional medical advice or consultations with healthcare professionals. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding your distinct healthcare needs and medical conditions. Never ignore professional medical advice because of something you have read on the Healthy Writer Life website. Regular exercise and dietary needs vary for each individual; you are responsible for your own health and safety at all times.
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