Of all the dietary interventions I suggest to patients who don’t feel well, cutting out gluten often delivers the most rapidly detectable results — which is why I am such a fan of dumping the stuff. When wheat and other gluten-containing products are taken off the plate of someone who is sensitive to them, within weeks they often experience a noticeable reduction, sometimes even an end, to the digestive issues, brain fog, aches and pains, and headaches that brought them to me in the first place. In more serious cases, going gluten-free is the crucial first step in turning around a serious autoimmune condition.
So, if you’re feeling crummy too much of the time, giving gluten the heave-ho for a few weeks is an excellent way to figure out if it’s the sneaky culprit causing all the trouble. Here’s where to start:
The problem with gluten – in a nutshell.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains like rye and barley; in its many relatives like wheat germ, bulgur, couscous, farina, semolina, and spelt; and in a smorgasbord of processed foods and drinks that sneak it into the mix. Although wheat has been known as the “staff of life” for over eight thousand years, I believe that our off-balance microbiomes, and the inflamed intestines that are the result, may be increasing wheat intolerance. Other factors that may be making a bad situation worse: the sheer amount of wheat we consume every day, high-speed baking technologies that don’t break down the proteins into more digestible size; industrial food processing, and the use of herbicides. Inflammation caused by sensitivity to gluten can show up anywhere in the body, as digestive distress, headaches, achy joints, neurological issues, bloating, skin disorders, ovarian cysts, autoimmune problems and more. The good news is that by removing gluten-containing foods, and improving microbiome health, we can usually clear up these chronic inflammatory symptoms.
Plot your course.
To get started on the gluten-free path, pick a time that works with your schedule, preferably when you’re feeling relatively calm and inspired to make some changes. Think about which approach suits you best: cold-turkey or tapering-off? Stay the course for at least two weeks. Note any shifts in how you feel and look. If you’ve been suffering from symptoms for some time, healing can take time, weeks or even months. Be patient and keep at it.
Option 1: The Taper-off Approach
If you’re feeling generally lousy but it’s no crisis, and you tend to get overwhelmed by making big changes all at once, the taper-off-gluten approach is for you. How to do it:
- Start by replacing any gluten foods at your morning meal. Remember, savory leftovers can be a great breakfast. Note: If you’re eating oatmeal, make sure it is gluten-free (oats are technically not a gluten grain, but are often cross-contaminated due to the shared machinery used in harvesting and milling).
- Commit to this one breakfast adjustment every day for one week. Notice any changes in how you are feeling.
- The following week, replace gluten-containing foods at lunch.
- Commit to this lunchtime switch for one week, and keep noticing how you feel.
- Now that you have breakfast and lunch handled, on week three, start dropping the gluten out of your dinners.
- If you’re a snacker, remember to swap in healthy, whole food gluten-free snacks here as well, and stay away from processed gluten-free foods.
- If you eat out frequently, sneak a peek at the menu online before you go, have a strategy for what to order so that you can stay on track and off gluten, and still enjoy a meal out.
Option 2: The Clean Sweep/Cold-Turkey Approach
This method works well if you are highly motivated, either because you’re sick of suffering or you just do better when you set stricter goals for yourself. How to do it:
- Before you start, make time to plan how you will eat, ideally, writing out a strategy and making lists to remind you which items have gluten and which do not.
- Get your mind in the game by considering: what exactly will you eat for three meals a day? What snacks will work? What needs to be removed from my kitchen, and what will I replace it with? What will I do when I eat out? What to do if I slip up?
- Shop in advance to make sure there are plenty of gluten-free, whole foods (not processed gluten-free cookies and crackers!) in your pantry to make gluten-free eating goof-proof.
4 Tips for Mastering Gluten-Free Eating
UNMASK AND AVOID HIDDEN SOURCES OF GLUTEN, such as the thickeners and fillers in processed foods, sauces, some sausages, and desserts. (A quick internet search will deliver you comprehensive lists.)
BE OKAY WITH NOT FEELING OKAY. Gluten has an opioid effect: When you consume it, your body actually makes a hormone—a gluten endorphin—that raises your mood. No wonder it’s so addictive! Cutting it out can feel like drug withdrawal at first. If cravings for your former gluten foods kick in, eat some quality protein and good fats to satiate yourself wisely.
IF YOU FALL OFF THE WAGON, DON’T STRESS. If you eat gluten foods, and experience fatigue, foggy head, aches, pains, digestive issues, and/or constipation within a few hours, let the symptoms be your signposts to get you back on track.
GET COOKING! There have never been more resources, blogs, and good ingredients available for those who want to cook gluten-free. Don’t try to wing it without healthy food and snacks on hand!
Check your progress
After two weeks, assess the impact of the changes you’ve made. Think about how you feel without gluten-containing foods, compared to when they were still in your diet? What happens now when you eat a piece of bread or some pasta? You might find the results are intolerable. You might find that any reaction is moderate, making it okay to occasionally include these foods in your diet, as a conscious choice. Or you might find that eating bread or pasta doesn’t seem to affect you at all. Whatever the result, you have kick-started a gluten-aware way of eating, something I believe to be an invaluable key to being well in a world where our food sources, and our bodies’ responses to them, are undeniably changing.
Adapted from my book, How To Be Well: The 6 Keys to a Happy and Healthy Life.