Gluten free has gone mainstream. The multibillion dollar gluten-free food industry has exploded over the last few years, to the point that you now can go to just about any restaurant or grocery store and find a gluten-free alternative for whatever food you seek. From gluten-free breads, pastas and pastries to gluten-free shampoos and lotions, "gluten free" has become ubiquitous in our culture.
A recent survey from market research firm the NPD Group finds that America is cutting gluten in a big way. The survey estimated that around one third of US adults wanted to decrease or eliminate gluten from their diets, a record high. It's undeniable that for a growing number of the population, gluten-free foods are the best thing since sliced bread — so to speak.
Gluten, the protein that is found in grains such as wheat, rye, spelt and barley, can be highly inflammatory for a lot of people. Gluten exposure triggers a 70% increase in intestinal permeability (leaky gut syndrome), and spikes inflammation in the body for as long as six months.
Gluten affects people in extremely different ways. From the horrible autoimmune attacks of celiac disease and the allergic responses from a wheat allergy, to the estimated 1 in 20 Americans who have a gluten sensitivity, gluten is the center of a lot of research when it comes to chronic, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
With that said, "gluten free" is not synonymous with healthy. The major problem, in my opinion, is that the gluten-free alternatives that millions are eating with good intentions are highly inflammatory themselves. For example:
Pseudo-grains: Quinoa and amaranth are two other ingredients used in gluten-free foods. These foods are high in saponins, which act as a defense mechanism for plants, and can cause gut inflammation and contribute to leaky gut syndrome.
Soy: Soy products used to be all the rage in the health community, but this cheap and commonly used gluten-free food is high in phytoestrogens which can cause distress in the body.
Sugar: Just like fat-free foods, gluten-free foods can be loaded with added sugars. It's no secret that refined sugars are anything but healthy.
Vegetable and industrial seed oils: Vegetable oil, canola oil, rapeseed oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil are inexpensive and used in just about all boxed foods, including ones marketed "gluten free." These oils are high in omega-6 polyunsataturated fatty acids (PUFAs).
The point is that a healthy gluten-free diet includes a nutrient dense, anti-inflammatory dose of healthy fats and proteins, organic produce and grain-free flour alternatives such as almond flour, coconut flour and hazelnut flour. When going gluten free is done wrong, it's the overpriced food version of diet soda; just as unhealthy as the original, if not more.
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian,The Inflammation Spectrum, and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.