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The 5 Most Common Gluten-Free Diet Mistakes

on September 6 | in Food | by | with 48 Comments

gluten-free

I Eat Gluten

 . . . but I’m not afraid to take advantage of ambiguity when I’m handing my son over to the church nursery. “He can’t eat goldfish crackers,” I say as I pull a homemade treat out of the bottomless pit I call a purse. They nod oh-so-knowingly about gluten, and I say nothing.

Truth be told, my kids are not allergic to anything. My son “can’t” eat goldfish crackers because his mama will go all hulk and rip a water fountain out of the wall. Okay not really, it’s happened and we all survived. You get the idea, though. 

However, the reality is that many people can’t or shouldn’t eat gluten for health reasons. They often suffer from problems like eczema, migraines or joint pain without realizing that the problem is gluten intolerance or full blown celiac disease. (Wondering if this may be you? There are over 300 symptoms associated with gluten intolerance. Take this quiz to find out if some of your health challenges could be related.)

Fortunately, word is getting out and many people are taking steps toward better health. Unfortunately, many people who switch to a gluten-free diet make big mistakes that slow or stall their healing process. Here are my top five.

Mistake #1: Believing Labels

“’Certified gluten-free’ doesn’t necessarily mean the food is gluten-free. The same way ‘fat-free’ doesn’t actually mean fat free most of the time. Clever lawyers, massive legal loopholes, and mega food manufacturers tied in with government is what makes this possible. And it is the reason Celiacs [or gluten sensitive folks] often say ‘but I am eating gluten free, why don’t I feel well, why am I not getting better?” says Jaqui Karr (emphasis mine).

Current FDA standards allow “gluten free” products to contain 20 parts per million (PPM) gluten, and that’s not even the worst of it. Unfortunately, most gluten-free foods are highly processed with rancid oils, sugar and thickening agents that quickly convert to sugar in the body.

Now you may be asking, “Why would anyone intentionally use rancid oils?” In most cases I’m sure they don’t, but oils such as corn, canola, safflower, sunflower, and soy are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s) which become very unstable during the extraction process. PUFA’s inhibit the healing process of those trying to recover from food sensitivities/allergies by triggering gut inflammation in a situation where the gut lining is already compromised.

On the other hand thickening agents such as guar gum, sorghum, rice starch and arrowroot bring a completely different set of complications. As I’ll discuss later on, people with food sensitivities very often have lost the ability to digest food properly. Starches like the above thickening agents are virtually indigestible in these cases, so they rot in the gut and feed pathogenic bacteria that further damage digestive function (not to mention devastate the metabolism and cause weight gain!).

Mistake #2: Assuming Products That Don’t List Gluten As An Ingredient Are Safe

Gluten in your ketchup, shampoo and even your absolutely 100% gluten-free toast? Oh yes! Here are some other surprising ways you can get “glutened.”

  • Foods that don’t list gluten anywhere on the label. “As food becomes more refined, gluten is used as a stabilizing agent in products such as ketchup and ice cream. But don’t always expect to see it on a food’s ingredient list: If it’s used in the manufacturing process, it’s often not mentioned on the label of the product,” says this article. Here’s a very helpful list of foods that either definitely contain gluten or are likely to.
  • Personal care and beauty products. Shampoos, soaps, deodorants, lipsticks, lotions, all-natural hair sprays and even things like hand sanitizer often contain gluten in the form of wheat germ oil, hydrolized wheat protein, oats, hydrolized oat protein, textured plant protein, etc.
  • Vitamins and supplements. A random sampling recently found that nearly 25% contain or are contaminated with gluten.
  • Bulk bins. Those addictive dried mangos or raw walnuts may be sitting in a bin that previously held cereal, oats or cornmeal.
  • Well meaning family, friends, and even restaurants! “Often good intending people say things are GF when they are not gluten-safe. For example: a local restaurant said they had GF bread. I was thrilled! But then I saw them put the bread in a toaster, where other non-gf bread was being toasted,” says Gluten Free Chickie.

For those that are not dealing with a true allergy you may do fine with a little gluten here and there, but it might be worth weeding a few things out to avoid overexposure.

Mistake #3: Becoming Well-Fed But Malnourished

Gluten-free diet recommendations often focus on replacing gluten-laden junk food with safer alternatives – an approach that ignores the critical nutrient deficiencies celiacs and gluten sensitive folks often face.

But what about those that aren’t eating junk food? Is it possible, as my friend Sandrine often says, to be both well-fed and malnourished?  Yep, and here’s why:

A healthy intestine has an abundance of villi (tiny, finger-like projections that increase the intestinal surface area), which allows for the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream. With celiac disease [or gluten sensitivity] these villi are flattened and proper absorption of nutrients is compromised. The continued malabsorption of nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids can contribute to mood disorders, lower energy levels, poor bone health, insomnia, attention problems, and a host of other issues.’ (source)

Does going gluten-free correct this? Unfortunately, the answer is often no. A recent study found that 10 years after going gluten-free over 50% of celiac patients were still suffering from poor vitamin status. This may be because patients were eating gluten-free junk food OR they could be eating well but not absorbing nutrients properly. To gain access to the nutrients in food celiacs and gluten sensitive folks must carefully rebuild their microvili and overall gut lining. More on how to do that later on!

Mistake #4: Giving Up After A Few Days Because You Feel Worse

“Twenty-four hours after I stopped eating gluten, I felt like I got kicked by a horse,” Holly says in this article, adding that she “simply could not function and just basically stared at the walls. A few days later I started feeling better. That was what convinced me that, for me, gluten was a drug. It was a real drug to the point I went into withdrawal if I couldn’t get it.”

She’s right. As I wrote about in Healing Your Inner Junkie, improperly digested grains can act like morphine in the body and produce very real withdrawal symptoms.

Mistake #5: Stopping with Gluten

Ahhh, here we are: The part where you resist the urge to call me names while l you that going gluten-free is usually not enough. Once the gut lining has been compromised, exposure to grains of any kind will create more inflammation and damage. For that reason, many experts including Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride recommend a temporary removal of all grains from the diet alongside the addition of healing foods such as chicken broth, healthy fats and fermented foods.

We did this last year, and the results have been amazing. My husband lost 50+ pounds and has continued to see an overall improvement in health and focus and we were able to re-introduce grains without problems this summer.

the-gluten-summit-2013-630-0

FREE Online Summit!

The Gluten Summit is a FREE event taking place online from November 11-17. Dr. Tom O’Bryan, DC, CCN, DACBN, has gathered the world’s experts and opinion leaders on the topics of gluten-related disorders, healthy living and nutrition. If you need help navigating gluten-related (or suspected gluten-related) issues, check this summit out!

Click Here to Register for this FREE Event

Photo credits: Rice Krispies

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48 Responses to The 5 Most Common Gluten-Free Diet Mistakes

  1. Rebekkah Smith via FB says:

    Yes! Trying to explain to people that my son doing GAPS is not doing merely “gluten-free” is extremely difficult for some reason.

  2. Christine Hubel via FB says:

    Rebekkah – I say we are grain-free and sugar-free. That doesn’t explain it well for most people, but at least lets them know how limited we are.

  3. My progressive “food allergies” and food intolerance were getting so bad, I was afraid to eat. A search online for my symptoms returned the same results in lab studies of rats on GMO. I removed GMO and “conventional” foods. After years of progressive illnesses, it took only days to restore my health! If it’s organic, I can now eat anything, although conventional foods now make me fever up in a pool of night-sweats. I’m the canary in the coal mine. Stay Healthy!

    • Stephanie Ray says:

      The same thing happened to me! I’m so happy other people are finding the dangers in GMOs! My friends still look at me like I’ve lost my mind, because I refuse to eat anything that could possibly have them in them.

  4. Tina Warren via FB says:

    Ruth Goza Warren, Kylee Shaw, good info!

  5. Kim Hunter – I had a similar experience with GMO’s. I didn’t recover immediately after removing them but my slide toward immune dysfunction just happens to neatly coincide with the point at which they were introduced into the food supply :(

  6. Rebekkah Smith via FB says:

    Christine – that’s what I end up saying too. He has a nut allergy as well, so that usually scares people enough to not feed him anything.

  7. Gluten free is not a big deal after you cut out all the grains for a while. Makes me chortle at the people who act like it’s the end of the world.

  8. wow. i just got overwhelmed all over again. it sounds like my son could use going grain free… and yes, it does feel like like the end of the world to some of us. try feeding your family when everyone has different allergies… it means 3-4 separate meals 3 times a day.

    • Kaely says:

      Kylee,

      We have loads of food allergies as well as Celiac Disease and you’re right that it’s overwhelming! I hope things are going better for you and you’re able to find meals that everyone can eat! Our family usually eats like we all have all of them with the exception of snacks and breakfast :)

  9. Ruth Goza Warren via FB says:

    Has anyone here tried MILA?

  10. I might have laughed out loud at the “Hulk” comment… :) We’ve been doing grain free for about a month now and are in the process of phasing in small amounts of gluten-free grains to “test the waters”… It surprisingly hasn’t been nearly as difficult as I originally expected! …though my husband’s friends think the lunches as I pack him are a little “odd.” LOL. Sad day when fresh fruit, veggies, raw nuts, and the like are considered “weird” food!

  11. Kylee Shaw -That sounds really hard. Big hugs to you, and if you haven’t looked into it you might find http://www.gaps.me helpful!

  12. Ruth Goza Warren – I haven’t :)

  13. Brandis L Roush via FB says:

    You are so funny- love the hulk bit! My kids actually do have allergy tests that say they’re allergic to foods (wheat and dairy). Because I have no scrupples on this topic, I use the documentation to exclude my kids from snacks at school and preschool, even though they are no longer symptomatic and eat the substances at home.

  14. Sarah Halcom via FB says:

    Here in Utah, just off base, there is a store that is ALL gluten free.

  15. Tracey says:

    Great info – thanks Heather … we are a gluten free family after my 4 yr old daughter was diagnosed with Celiac … but I have also looked into the SCD diet as she still has regular symptoms 1 year later.

  16. Katherine Kwaterski via FB says:

    Thank you for this post, I reported it on my FB page. My husband and I are one week into a modified (bc I’m still bfing) GAPS diet and are blogging about it at katsrealfoodkitchen.com . We’re feeling great so far and have even lost a few pounds. Thanks for continuing to post well researched, and cited articles:-)

  17. Angela says:

    Question… I just found out I’m expecting. I’ve got some good old nausea that I’m treating with magnesium oil, epsom baths and sunlight, but we’re also doing GAPS and the crackers and pasta from my last pregnancy are off limits for settling my stomach. I notices in the GAPS book, that Dr. M. suggests that pregnant women do full GAPS with the addition of potatoes, properly soaked grains and raw milk. I would love your thoughts. I have Hashimoto’s and suspect that I am gluten intolerant on some level. Could I perhaps reintroduce rice and potatoes?

    • Heather says:

      Hi Angela! That must be a more recent GAPS edition than I have because I have never read that! If it were me I would follow Dr. Campbell-McBrides advice, introduce things slowly, and see if I feel better. Congrats on your pregnancy!

      • Angela says:

        Yeah, I have the 2010 edition. The bit I’m referring to is in the pregnancy section on page 347.

        “If your digestion is normal you can have potatoes, sourdough bread and whole grains cooked at home in moderate amounts.Remember that all these carbohydrates must be consumed with good amounts of natural fats to slow down their digestion and improve nutritional value: let people say about you: “She likes a bit of bread with her butter!””

        Ha! I’ve always been that girl. :) Thanks for your awesome blog! It helps my family out all the time with so many topics!

        • Sunny says:

          Angela, no judgement from me regarding what you choose to eat in your pregnancy. ;) But my understanding of Dr. McBride says that your confirmed Hashimotos and suspected gluten intolerance would disqualify you from HER opinion of someone with “normal” digestion. Based on her writings and interviews I have heard, I don’t think she would recommend potatoes, bread, or whole grains for anyone with compromised digestion. In my recollection, she recommends to do FULL GAPS during pregnancy, eliminating all grains and starchy vegetables.

          • Angela says:

            I guess I’m a little murky on what “normal” digestion should mean. The section I quoted is definitely from the pregnancy section. Throughout the book she talks about progressing to new foods (adding yogurt, raw vegetables, etc.) as the digestive symptoms normalize. In these sections, it’s a tolerance issue (no gas or constipation/diaharrea) when introducing a new food. My family has been on full GAPS for several months now, so I would think this would apply to me, but I don’t want to start eating things I’m not supposed to. Thoughts?

  18. Angela says:

    Sorry, forgot to subscribe to this post…

  19. Sunny says:

    Thanks Heather for such a great post. I’m still so ADD from my compromised digestion, so cannot explain this info concisely enough for others to comprehend. :) Now I can just send them to you.

  20. [...] Real Food Forager) just launched Go Grain Free, a 12-week class that will show you how to skip the “gluten-free” trap and learn to make your own healthy waffles, pizza crusts, snack bars, granola and more. All recipes [...]

  21. I love this article!!!!

  22. Karen says:

    Can you clarify? If someone needs to heal their gut and go gluten-free, they can’t have even the most infinitesimal amount of gluten in their diet? Not even 20 ppm? That sounds daunting to me. I’m just trying to better understand, thank you! Love your blog :)

    • Sarah L says:

      Karen, I think it really depends on the person. Some people are THAT sensitive. I have also noticed that my friends who have finally addressed their gluten issues seem to get more sensitive. I think that comes from the body finally reacting properly to something that is poisonous to it, rather than having that feedback loop so depressed from constant bombardment. Other people don’t have that level of sensitivity. My youngest has some issues with gluten, but it is cumulative for her – she can have a little without a reaction, but once she gets past a certain level, her reactions climb quickly. Many people also find, like this article mentions, that once they start healing their bodies, they can handle some amount of the food that previously provoked a reaction.

      All that is to say, I don’t think there is AN answer. It’s really about getting to know your body and figuring out what makes you feel healthy. It is daunting, there is no doubt about that, but it’s also worth it when you feel better!

      • Heather says:

        I agree with Sarah. I have a friend that will be bedridden for days if she even touches gluten. It’s a very extreme case, but some people are that sensitive. For others, a small amount will not cause such a negative reaction.

    • Karen says:

      Thank you for answering my question, everyone! I appreciate it. I don’t think my family has a gluten intolerance, but I am just starting to learn about this, and I know there is more research I need to do.

  23. Angela says:

    Hi Karen, I commented above about my pregnancy and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis… My family has been completely gluten-free since that time (and more recently again grain-free), and my Hashimoto’s (autoimmune condition) is almost in complete remission from dietary changes alone. Even my naturopath is amazed! I am continually in wonder at how much of a difference our diet can make in our health. I feel better at 8 months pregnant than I have in years! :) Give gluten-free a try and you won’t regret it! :)

  24. Megan A says:

    Honest question … I’m confused because I know that my body needs carbs, yet without grains I’m not sure how to get enough. I know we need to be off gluten. You mentioned the “hit by a horse” feeling getting better after a few days. What does it mean if it gets worse, not better, over a period of several days? My husband responded very well to being off gluten. I, on the other hand, was so exhausted at the end of the week that I could barely get out of bed. I was eating starchy veggies but it didn’t seem to be enough. Thoughts?

    • Eric Johnson says:

      I wouldn’t worry about carbs. Track your food in one of the food calculator and you will probably find that you are eating too many, not too few. Carbs come from a lot more sources than we normally think. Fruits and veggies tend to be high carb. It’s better processed by your body though and doesn’t cause insulin spikes.

  25. Holly says:

    Megan, I went through a detox for the first 7 or so days that sounds similar to what you described. It does get better with time, so stick with out, and drink a ton of water!

  26. Sonii says:

    Enjoying the speakers at the conference and the depth of information that all are sharing ! We have been on an elimination diet for three weeks now and feel great. JJ Virgin diet. Loving it !

  27. Kirsten says:

    When you say to give up all grains for awhile…how long is awhile?

  28. Judy says:

    I was diagnosed with DH celiac in 2001. I try to adhere as strictly as I can to a totally gluten free diet . I had struggled for years with poor digestion, fibromyalgia .arthritic symptoms, migraines.difficult pregnancies, breaking small bones like fingers and toes easily,poor enamel on teeth and the list goes on. About 2 years before the official diagnosis I developed the horrendous rash. At that time I had my gall bladder removed and the dr. Told me I needed to switch to a whole grain diet which I did . BIG MISTAKE. I became so ill I thought I would die! The rash started and it was the most horrible itching , burning rash. I felt like my whole body was crawling and that I would go out of my mind. After 2 years of steroids, prednisone, medicated creams and lotions with no relief I switched Drs. I was sent to a specialist immediately and was diagnosed with celiac. I have now that I am very allergic to Amaranth flour. Projectile vomiting for hours. Have had it 3 times with the same reaction each time. Now I have to be careful to read ingredients on GF Foods to be sure it is not there. Is it common to react to even gluten free grains. Generally safe with corns, rice etc.

  29. SomeoneWithCeliac says:

    While it’s true that foods labeled gluten-free can contain up to 20 ppm of gluten, it’s my opinion that they way you present that information is misleading. To clarify the safety-level of 20 ppm for those suffering, not only from intolerance or sensitivity, but from full-blown celiac disease, check out the following:
    Q: While I understand that less than 20 ppm gluten is less than a crumb and, therefore, not visible to the eye, I still have several questions about this amount. Can you… 1. Help put this into context for me? 2. Clarify whether I should be concerned with cumulated gluten intake? 3. Explain how many servings of less than 20 ppm can a person with celiac disease safely consume in one day?
    A: Before addressing these questions, let’s lay some groundwork. 20 ppm = 20 milligrams (mg) of gluten per 1 kilogram (kg) of food. And, 1 kg of food contains 1,000,000 mg of food. Part 1 – If you could take a 1 oz. slice of regular bread and break it into 7,030 tiny pieces, one of these tiny pieces would contain the same amount of gluten found in an entire 1 oz. slice of gluten-free bread. Parts 2 and 3: – Each 1 oz. slice of bread containing 20 ppm gluten contains 0.57 milligrams (mg) of gluten – which is still under the 10 mg of gluten threshold that limited research suggests that most individuals with celiac disease can tolerate each day. (Source: National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, http://www.celiaccentral.org/SiteData/docs/FollowUpFa/ed58723f1fc33659/Follow%20Up%20Fact%20Sheet_FDA%20Webinar%20Part%201_September%2018%202013_Final.pdf)

  30. AshleyB says:

    It took me a long time and some trial and error to realize that my body can’t handle gluten. I went off of all grains for ~60 days, and now will have small amounts of GF grains. It’s amazing how I feel when I avoid them altogether, though! I’ve lost weight, need less sleep, have clearer skin, and generally feel better than I have since I was a child! Figuring out what your body is trying to tell you is the most challenging part, in my opinion :)

  31. cia parker says:

    My daughter has autism and GI disease from reactions to the hep-B vaccine and the DTaP booster. She was on the GFCF diet for a year, it was amazing, and completely stopped her chronic, severe constipation. Then we started chelating with the Andy Cutler protocol (both of us, I have MS from mercury vaccine poisoning), DMSA and ALA. The DMSA caused her constipation to come back, probably from yeast overgrowth, and I took her off that and only gave her the ALA. I put her on a grain-free diet (specific carbohydrate minus the goat yogurt, essentially Paleo, with only meat, fruit, veggies, coconut yogurt, and baked goods made with almond flour), and again, it was amazing, stopping her symptoms within days! She was on it for a year, but now seems to be able to eat grains and gluten again without problems. She still seems to be intolerant of milk. I can’t speak highly enough of the grain-free diet, and it really turned out to be easy, I got several cookbooks (Lucy’s, Cooking for Little Tummies, pecanbread.com, and a ton of paleo books), rotated chicken and ground beef recipes (unpleasant since I’m still an ethical vegetarian), almond flour muffins, bread for sandwiches, and pizza. I strongly encourage any parents whose children have chronic GI symptoms to try it!

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