The TRUTH About Gluten-Free Food — Does it Help or Hurt Gut Health?

The Celiac Disease Epidemic

The Celiac Disease Epidemic

When I was diagnosed with Celiac disease in 2007, I had no idea what gluten-free food was. I’d never heard of it before and I definitely didn’t know where to buy it.

But at the time, sales of gluten-free food were on the rise and had just reached $1.56 billion in 2008. (1)

In 2013, SPINS, a market research firm that covers the natural product industry, reported a total of $12.4 billion in gluten-free sales during the 52 weeks leading up to August 4, 2012. (2)

(That’s 13.4X growth in 5 years!)

The “gluten-free” food industry is making a TON of money, while conditions like Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are trending on Twitter and gaining more awareness each year.

TIME labeled the gluten-free movement #2 on its top 10 list of food trends for 2012…

Not only that, Domino’s now serves gluten-free pizza…

Chelsea Clinton had a gluten-free wedding cake…

Gwyneth Paltrow included gluten-free recipes in her new cookbook, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck built her “G-Free Diet” brand…

The list goes on and on.

Today, even the smallest grocery stores across America are beginning to carry gluten-free foods in a “healthy living” section, right next to the green tea.

Gluten-Free foods are becoming ubiquitous and synonymous with living a healthy lifestyle… even for people without Celiac disease.  

But is gluten-free really healthy? Will it make Celiac disease and gluten intolerance a distant memory?

I’m here to tell you no… as Lucretius put in: “What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others.”

If you want to know whether or not Gluten Free food is helping or hurting you, read on…

The Problem: Gluten-Free Food ALONE Isn’t Helping Sick People

There’s no denying the fact that people with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should avoid all gluten. Most Doctors tell them they’ll be fine if they follow a strict gluten-free diet. But how effective is the gluten-free diet for the people that need it most?

New research suggests that the small intestines of up to 60% of adults never completely heal from Celiac disease despite following a gluten-free diet. (3)

In one study of 241 Celiac patients, small intestine mucosal recovery 2 years after following a gluten-free diet was 34% and 5 years later was only 66%. (4)

The authors stated:

“Mucosal recovery was absent in a substantial portion of adults with CD after treatment with a GFD.”

Another study, in 2009, published in The Journal of Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics, of 465 Celiac patients after 16 months on a gluten-free diet found that:

“Complete normalization of duodenal lesions is exceptionally rare in adult coeliac patients despite adherence to GFD” (5)

So, in other words, many of these people followed a gluten-free diet for years and it didn’t fix their gut. It doesn’t stop there, though…

The same 2009 study, published in the JAPT, found that 65% still had “persistent intraepithelial lymphocytosis,” a.k.a. inflammation in the gut. (6)

Even after 16 months of eating gluten-free, they still had severe gut inflammation.

A 2008 study, in the Journal of Inflammation, looked at 18 symptom-free Celiac disease (SFCD) patients and found they still had elevated markers of gut inflammation even after 2 years on a gluten-free diet. The authors reported:

“Faeces of both active CD and SFCD (symptom-free 1-2 years on a GFD) patients, representing an imbalanced microbiota, significantly increased TNF-alpha production and CD86 expression in PBMCs, while decreased IL-10 cytokine production and CD4 expression compared with control samples.” (7)

Inflammation damages the intestinal lining in your gut and causes digestive problems. It can also damage the arteries in your heart and cause heart disease, and even damage your joints or cause rheumatoid arthritis. It also leads to just about every chronic disease we know of. So, it’s a pretty big deal that it’s not improving on a gluten-free diet.

What about people without Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity that go gluten-free to lose weight or get more energy?

Well, new research is beginning to suggest a gluten-free diet has harmful impacts to the good bacteria in our gut.

A 2010 study, published in Gut Microbes, revealed that “the changes in the microbiota found in healthy subjects following a GFD were to some extent similar as those detected previously in patients after compliance with a long-term GFD.”

The authors went on to say that:

“…analysis of fecal microbiota and dietary intake indicated that numbers of healthy gut bacteria decreased, while numbers of unhealthy bacteria increased parallel to reductions in the intake of polysaccharides after following the GFD… individuals under a GFD would be more susceptible to overgrowth of harmful bacteria and infections, which might be associated with unpleasant symptoms and increased health risks.” (8)

Not only does the research indicate that going gluten-free doesn’t fix the gut or cool inflammation, but that it alters your gut flora and allows bad bacteria to grow in your gut.

Recent scientific breakthroughs are showing that your gut flora has the ability to communicate directly to your brain, thus affecting your moods, feeding your immune system information on how to act, and helping to control inflammation. (9) (10) (11)

Isn’t this food supposed to be healthy? Isn’t gluten a severely inflammatory toxin we should remove from our diet? Yes…

The Ugly Truth: Most ‘Gluten-Free Food’ is Still Junk Food

Evidence is piling up that high inflammation, poor vitamin status, and leaky gut persist on a gluten-free diet, which leads to one thing: untreated Celiac disease…

But what could possibly be wrong with a gluten-free diet? Doesn’t gluten cause Celiac disease?

Yes, gluten causes Celiac disease and it must be eliminated to treat Celiac disease. In fact, research suggests that even an acute gluten exposure triggers a 70% increase in intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and spikes inflammation for as much as 6 months. (12)

But there’s a laundry list of other foods that drive inflammation and keep the gut leaky. Don’t get me wrong, gluten is the worst offender. But a Celiac’s gut is severely damaged and highly susceptible to poor food choices. If you don’t remove the “other dietary triggers” contributing to the disease, you’re going to end up sick and pissed off like I was. Going gluten-free isn’t enough… and here’s why.

Eating Processed “Gluten-Free Food” Is Usually Toxic

Mainstream literature on Celiac disease tells us that eating gluten-free is a healthy lifestyle choice and doctors regularly explain it as the only way to treat newly diagnosed Celiac disease patients. But the treatment plan is dripping in the same conventional wisdom that created the current Standard American Diet (SAD).

That’s the rub: the average gluten-free diet is built on the same foundation as the SAD… both are low-fat, highly processed diets made up of toxic foods.

The biggest problem with the Gluten-Free Diet is the reliance on processed foods that are low in nutrients and high on toxins.

The standard Gluten-Free Diet typically contains 4 specific food toxins that contribute to leaky gut, inflammation, and poor vitamin status:

  • Cereal grains (like corn, rice, and oats)
  • Soy (soy milk, soy protein, soy flour, etc.)
  • Industrial seed oils (Canola oil, Rapeseed oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil)
  • Sugar (especially high-fructose corn syrup and table sugar)

Even though the worst offending food toxin, gluten, is removed – the Gluten-Free Diet relies heavily on the other four agents of modern disease to create a diet that “looks” very similar to the Standard American Diet. In fact, many types of gluten-free pasta and other packaged foods are loaded with higher concentrations of these 4 food toxins than their original counterparts.

Gluten-Free Cereal Grains Are Waging War on Your Gut

In “How Gluten Causes Celiac Disease,” I explained that the main reason we don’t eat wheat and other gluten-containing grains is that they contain a protein called gliadin, which is a prolamine that increases zonulin production causing leaky gut and inflammation.

And remember when I said that plants carry weapons of mass destruction?

It’s no joke… plants are concerned about their survival just like we are. They don’t want to die, which is why they have defense mechanisms to protect them, like toxic anti-nutrients and proteins that should deter any living being from eating them.

Most cereal grains contain a toxic protein called “prolamines,” which are knurly, tough proteins that humans can’t digest. The research is very clear: we aren’t equipped to “digest” or break down prolamines small enough to absorb any nutrients. (13)

Toxic prolamines give the plant a protection mechanism for their survival (since they can’t get up and run away). These proteins irritate the gut lining and sneak their way past the intestinal wall in humans and animals that eat them.

Gliadin is the prolamine in wheat, but other cereal grains common on the Gluten-Free Diet have similar proteins that also cause problems:

  • Zein, the prolamine in corn, has been shown to be problematic for Celiacs (14)
  • Avenin, the prolamine in oats, triggers a powerful inflammatory response in Celiacs (15)
  • Orzenin, the prolamine in brown rice, can cause inflammation in the gut of children (16)

Prolamines are the big guns defending the plant from being eaten alive… but that’s not the only part of these cereal grains that cause problems. They contain another secret weapon just as powerful…

Plant Lectins in Gluten-Free Cereal Grains Are Toxic Too

If prolamines are weapons of mass destruction, then plant lectins are the plant’s special forces executing individual suicide missions against your gut lining. These toxic sugar-binding proteins don’t get digested either, and they bind to the cells on the gut wall (enterocytes) and prevent them from completing their normal healing processes (causing them to die). Not only that, but research shows they weasel their way past the intestinal wall and cause leaky gut… and trigger our old friend inflammation. (17)

These so-called “healthy, gluten-free grains” are waging war inside your gut because they don’t want you to eat them either… just like gluten. And so far we’ve talked about how these cereal grains promote leaky gut and inflammation…

But remember earlier when I made the point that a gluten-free diet leaves many Celiacs with inflammation, leaky gut, and nutrient deficiencies?

Phytates Steal Vitamins and Minerals Right Under Your Nose

Phytates are not for plant defense – they’re for self-fertilization of the plant. They’re specially designed to keep the plant supplied with the necessary vitamins and minerals it needs to stay alive.

When we eat them, they bind to metal ions inside us, so they can impair the bioavailability of critical minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. (18) Not only that, but they inhibit the enzymes we need to properly digest foods and extract nutrients from them.

It’s a 1-2 punch; they tend to steal the minerals we need and then rob us of the ability to properly extract nutrients from the foods we eat.

A diet high in grains may also reduce the body’s ability to process vitamin D (19) and low vitamin D is associated with leaky gut. (20) (If you still think you need grains to be healthy, read this article.)

These toxic assaults all add up… and they begin to paint the picture that the Gluten-Free Diet doesn’t work. Even Quinoa, a frequent staple of the “healthy” gluten-free diet, contains large quantities of Saponins. Saponins are another plant defense chemical that severely damages the gut wall and causes leaky gut. (21)

Soy Disrupts Your Hormones and Your Thyroid

Soy is another food that gets coined as “healthy” in mainstream media. It’s found in many gluten-free foods and is even touted as an alternative to eating animals. The Soy Industry has spent a TON of time and money trying to convince us soy is healthy. The reality is: Soy is filled with toxins. Here are the 4 main problems with soy in regards to Celiac disease:

  1. Soy screws up your hormones because of the presence of phytoestrogens. This is important because these phytoestrogens are linked to cancer growth and infertility problems. Your hormones need to be working correctly to recover from illness.
  2. Soy messes up your thyroid. We already covered that if you have Celiac disease your chances are extremely high of getting other autoimmune conditions of the thyroid (like Grave’s disease). The same phytoestrogens messing with your hormones are also implicated in hypothyroidism and potentially thyroid cancer. (22)
  3. Soy is high in phytates, which means it robs you of valuable minerals like calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron. (23)
  4. Soy increases the need for more vitamin D, which we already know contributes to leaky gut.

For a complete listing of the toxic effects of Soy, check out this PDF from the Weston A. Price Foundation. Just like grains, soy contains toxic chemicals that don’t support recovering from Celiac disease. Simply put, there’s much better quality food to put in your mouth.

Industrial Seed Oils Inflame Your Body

Consumption of industrial seed oils (corn, cottonseed, soybean, safflower, sunflower, etc.) has dramatically increased in the last century and the Gluten-Free Diet is no exception. Many processed foods off the shelf contain these seed oils that are high in omega-6 fatty acids. In fact, you might even think that some of these oils are “healthy.”

Here’s the thing: when Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids are in a balanced ratio, they don’t promote inflammation. But when Omega-6 fatty acid consumption increases without a corresponding increase in Omega-3 fatty acids, the ratio is out of balance and inflammation occurs. It’s common for a gluten-free diet to be high in omega-6 fatty acids from industrial seed oils and low in omega-3 fatty acids. That’s a recipe for an inflammatory cascade…

Our friend Chris Kresser has one of the most detailed explanations of this process in his 9 Steps to Perfect Health series (read it here for the full breakdown). But the short version goes like this:

“It’s likely that the increase in omega-6 consumption has played an equally significant role in the rise of nearly every inflammatory disease. Since it is now known that inflammation is involved in nearly all diseases, including obesity and metabolic syndrome, it’s hard to overstate the negative effects of too much omega-6 fat.” (24)

Bottom line: Industrial seed oils promote inflammation by dramatically affecting your ratio of n-6 to n-3 fatty acids.

Sugar Fuels the Fire Roaring in Your Body

Here’s 141 reasons why sugar ruins your health… but I want to focus on what it feeds.

Carbohydrates and Sugars are the primary food for the bacteria in our gut. Bacteria live on sugar – that’s normal. What isn’t normal is the type of bacteria found overgrowing in the gut of a Celiac patient. Normally there’s a balance between good and bad bacteria.

When the delicate gut flora balance gets upset, opportunistic or pathogenic bacteria can quickly take over and cause “Gut Dysbiosis” or small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). One reason Celiacs frequently have gut dysbiosis is a result of the damage to the villi of the small intestine. During the active stages of Celiac disease, the villi aren’t working properly and carbohydrate malabsportion can occur (meaning there’s suddenly a ton of extra food for the bacteria to feast on).

Here’s where the gluten-free diet fits into all this…

The most common sugar consumed in the standard gluten-free diet is sucrose (or table sugar). Sucrose is made up of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule bonded together to create a disaccharide (2 sugar molecules). Sucrose gets broken down by the digestive process into monosaccharide molecules to be absorbed by the gut.

Here’s the catch: The main “splitter” for these chemical bonds is the micro-villi, which we just discussed are damaged and not able to do their job. This leaves us with a surplus of sugar molecules hanging around in the intestine feeding bad bacteria (Read this article for in-depth info on the different kinds of sugar).

In general, the standard Gluten-Free Diet is primarily made up of processed carbohydrates and processed sugars, which are mostly di- and polysaccharides that need to be “split” in the gut before they can be absorbed. Having a ton of undigested carbs and sugars hanging out in your gut creates the perfect recipe for digestive problems and SIBO…

SIBO Makes Your Gut Leak

In a previous article I wrote, I pointed to the latest research suggesting that we can’t reverse the damage from Celiac disease without reversing leaky gut. So far, I’ve shown you how toxic defense mechanisms in gluten-free cereal grains create leaky gut and inflammation.

Inflammation and leaky gut are also caused by toxins produced by bad bacteria…

Researchers have identified small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) as the only other stimulus powerful enough to trigger zonulin release and create leaky gut the same way gluten does. (25) In fact, they theorize that the body responds to SIBO by opening up the tight junctions as a defensive immune response intended to flush the bad bacteria from the body. (26)

SIBO is an overgrowth condition that drives leaky gut syndrome and the Gluten-Free Diet is the fuel to feed the overgrowth. In one study, researchers took small intestine biopsies from children with Celiac disease to understand the role bacteria played in the disease. Their results were frightening: they not only found SIBO, but they discovered these children had 42 different rod-shaped bacteria, 30 of which had never been found in the human small intestine before… 18 of which were completely unknown! (27)

Another study looked at adult Celiac patients that weren’t getting better on a gluten-free diet and found that “SIBO affects most Celiacs with persistence of GI symptoms after gluten withdrawal.” (28)

How can SIBO cause so much trouble?

Pathogenic bacteria produce toxic byproducts that get released in the gut and the bloodstream (like lipopolysaccharides – LPS). These toxins can severely damage the intestinal cell surface, triggering an inflammatory response as the body attempts to fight off the perceived bacterial threat and cause difficulty digesting and absorbing certain carbohydrates. They can also find their way into the bloodstream and wreak havoc on the liver. (29)

Not only that, but while they happily feed on undigested sugars and other carbohydrates that are supposed to feed you, they release gases like hydrogen and methane. The end result is gas, bloating, and diarrhea or constipation… and perpetually untreated Celiac disease.

The Inflammation-Leaky Gut Cycle

Bottom line: If you have Celiac disease, you have leaky gut and bad gut flora.

We’ve talked about how prolamines and lectins cause inflammation and leaky gut. We’ve talked about how SIBO causes inflammation and leaky gut… and all within the confines of a gluten-free diet.

When your gut flora is out of balance and your gut barrier is damaged, your gut is going to be inflamed. Inflammation triggers leaky gut and leaky gut triggers inflammation. (30) They all feed on one another in a vicious cycle that looks like this:


The only way to begin treating Celiac disease is to break this inflammation-leaky gut cycle… and the first step is to recognize that gluten-free isn’t enough. There’s a better way to eat that can begin to halt this process.

So, What Can We Eat to Feel Better?

The answer: Eat easy-to-digest, low-toxin, real foods – foods that don’’t feed bad bacteria or promote inflammation… but at the same time provide adequate nutrition and improve intestinal permeability.

In other words, the ideal Celiac disease diet:

  • Doesn’t contain processed foods filled with added sugars, vegetable oils, additives, or dyes that damage health
  • Eliminates disaccharides and polysaccharides to starve out overgrown bad bacteria (SIBO)
  • Eliminates the most toxic food groups: cereal grains and soy
  • Encourages consumption of low-toxin, whole foods in their natural state
  • Encourages plenty of nutrient-dense animal products filled with protein and healthy fats
  • Encourages plenty of good bugs (probiotics) through fermented foods or supplements

The Gluten-Free Diet doesn’t fit the bill…

The majority of marketed “healthy gluten free food” is STILL processed junk food.

Simply eliminating cereal grains that promote inflammation and leaky gut is a step in the right direction. But if you remove the other 3 toxic foods I mentioned above (soy, industrial seed oils, and sugar) you’ll be one step closer to recovery. At that point, you’ll be eating a whole food, non-processed diet – which is ideal for optimal health based on what we know.

Is that the same thing as a Paleo or Primal diet?

In our experience, a recovering Celiac does well to graduate to the full paleo/primal diet after focusing on healing the gut first. The recovery process starts by starving out the bad bacteria and helping the gut heal by removing normally healthy food that can be problematic. In general, the best results happened when foods are properly cooked and problematic foods are slowly introduced over time.

Before the discovery of gluten in 1952, Dr Sidney V. Haas proposed the theory of SIBO as the cause of Celiac disease in his book The Management of Celiac Disease because he saw a benefit in treating Celiacs with The Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD).

The SCD diet is a form of low-carb paleo/primal that removes common irritants that are problematic in the Gluten-Free Diet, but it also limits the availability of carbohydrates as a food source for bad bacteria and starves them out over time. As the small intestine improves, Celiacs can begin to properly absorb nutrients again. The volume of sugars that are allowed to ferment in the digestive tract becomes less and the symptoms of bloating, gas, and diarrhea start to go away.

Create a Custom Diet to Heal Your Body

Lastly, the SCD framework starts out with simple foods that are easy to digest. Over time, you end up creating a custom diet that expands with more foods while you heal… eventually allowing foods that might not have been well tolerated earlier (like nightshades, eggs, nuts, or fermented dairy).

The bottom line: SCD was the only thing that finally stopped my Celiac disease symptoms and started to reverse the damage to my body before I could even tolerate a paleo/primal diet. If you’re ready to take control of your Celiac disease, I highly recommend you try SCD for 30 days to see how you feel.

Steve and I wrote our book to make it easy for you to create your custom diet. You can get it here:


I’m so grateful to support your health,

– Jordan

P.S. – Please share this with friends and family dealing with Celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Thank you.

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