Why Gluten isn't good for you

Why Gluten isn’t good for you

Our article below is kindly provided by Anette Harbech Olesen a Danish nutritionist, writer and food & health blogger. She is author of the book ‘Gluten-Free Secrets’, which will be released in English on the 25th of September. As Anette comments in the introduction of her book:

“Did you know that every third American would prefer to avoid gluten altogether in their diet? The same tendency is sweeping through Europe.

The number of people who have noticed that less gluten in their food improves their digestion, performance and wellbeing is rising. Unexplained symptoms disappear, digestion problems abate and aching joints are soothed. And recent research shows that far more ailments and disorders than previously thought may be linked to ingestion of gluten.”

Gluten-free bread articleToday, we eat more gluten than ever before in history. The gluten content of the food we eat has risen, and the gluten found in modern wheat strains is more difficult to digest than that of older wheats like einkorn or spelt. In recent years, we have seen an increased focus on gluten, and more and more people find that they start to feel better once they omit gluten or wheat from their diet.

Gluten is a protein found particularly in wheat, but also in rye and barley. Oat contains no gluten as such, but since oats are often grown and processed along with wheat, most conventional oat products contain traces of gluten. Since the publication of a number of studies of the effect of gluten on human digestion by researchers such as Dr Alessio Fasano and his colleagues, public interest in gluten-related issues has reached new heights [1] .

Gluten Reactions

Gluten from ordinary wheat flour is hard to digest, and the elastic mass that results from mixing water and wheat flour may, if undigested, cause severe irritation and damage to our intestinal lining. Most people will feel lighter and experience an improvement in their digestion when they cut down their intake of gluten-rich food. To illustrate the potential effect of gluten on our intestinal health (and our health in general), let me list the three most common types of negative gluten reactions here:

1. Celiac disease: An autoimmune disorder caused by gluten. This disorder may result in damage to our intestinal lining, dermatitis herpetiformis, a violent, blistering rash, or gluten ataxia, which may lead to neurological problems and loss of coordination.

2. Gluten intolerance: An immune response linked to gluten.

3. Gluten sensitivity or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS): a possibly immune-mediated gluten sensitivity.

A Negative Immune Response

Previously, reactions to gluten were regarded as a rare occurrence. A study published in 2009 in the journal Gastroenterology changed this assumption, and showed quite conclusively that the actual incidence of celiac disease has grown about 400% since the early 1950s [2].

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder caused by gluten, but even people who don’t suffer from celiac disease may experience negative effects from gluten and wheat. In 2011, the researcher Jessica Biesiekierski of Monash University in Australia published the first of a series of studies demonstrating that for most people ingesting gluten actually provokes, to some extent, a negative immune response [3].

This is why it may be a good idea to keep an eye on your gluten and wheat intake. Especially if you experience irritable bowels or indigestion. Reactions to gluten most frequently begin in the bowels. Insufficient digestion of gluten may lead to conditions like bloating, diarrhoea and stomach cramps, but a whole range of other symptoms may also be linked to gluten.

Skin problems, mood swings and autoimmune disorders as well as leaky gut syndrome may all be caused by gluten. Insufficiently digested gluten may also raise inflammation levels in our bodies simply because it irritates our immune system and activates our white blood cells. Increased inflammation levels play a part in the development of practically all lifestyle diseases.


Many people who suffer from indigestion or bowel problems do not only react negatively to gluten but also to the so-called ‘FODMAPs’, i.e. fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. By omitting all FODMAPs – including gluten – from their diet for a while, most people with irritable bowel syndrome may achieve normal digestion and bowel functions within only a few weeks. You can read more about FODMAPs here:

Monash University: Low FODMAP diet for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

A Life Without Gluten?

Knowing what we know today about gluten, we should probably ask ourselves whether our increased gluten intake is at all desirable seen from a health perspective. The number of people who experience health benefits from a gluten-free lifestyle is growing rapidly and far exceeds the number of people who actually suffer from gluten intolerance or celiac disease.

We can conclude that intake of gluten can provoke inappropriate bodily reactions. But what if it’s the other way round? What if it isn’t gluten that causes adverse body reactions, but instead our bodies reacting appropriately to an inappropriate food?

Not all of us react negatively to gluten, but gluten is not, as you might think, a friend to digestion and intestinal health. Quite the contrary one might say. It may be well worth your while to check whether gluten is the villain if your body complains or you experience unpleasant prolonged symptoms. See the table further below for a list of typical reactions to gluten.

There are no side effects to living without gluten – quite the opposite. A life without gluten may well be a life without digestion problems, bloating, irritable bowels, fatigue, rashes, hyperactivity or any of the other troublesome symptoms that we may experience when gluten affects us negatively.

The good news is that you can live without gluten and still make your favourite dishes – you just need to replace the wheat flour with rice or millet flour for instance. It’s not difficult, and you’ll find that cooking without any gluten at all is no big fuss. The greatest challenge for most people is bread – and the best gluten-free bread you can get is the bread you make yourself! And typically gluten-free bread and baking recipes are sugar, yeast and cow’s milk free too; or provide the options for alternative ingredients.

Typical reactions to gluten:

  • Bloated stomach
  • Thin, hard or malodorous stools (particularly common among children reacting to gluten)
  • Irritable bowels or indigestion
  • Acid reflux and heartburn
  • Joint, bone and muscle pains and arthritis
  • Metabolic problems
  • Fatigue or anaemia (decrease in red blood cell levels)
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies often resulting in fatigue or lack of energy
  • Eczema, psoriasis or acne
  • fluid-filled rashes and dermatitis herpetiformis (Duhring’s disease)
  • Delayed puberty or stunting
  • Infertility and repeated miscarriages
  • Depression and mood swings

Gluten is found naturally in:

  • Wheat flour, whole or cracked wheat, wheat flakes, wheat germ and wheat bran
  • Rye flour, whole rye
  • Graham flour
  • Durum flour
  • Spelt, Farro/Emmer as well as einkorn wheat
  • Bulgar wheat, couscous and semolina
  • ©Kamut (Khorasan wheat)
  • Barley flour, cracked barley and pearl/whole barley

Anette Harbech Olesen has studied diet and nutrition in Denmark as well as the USA. She blogs about food and health issues at www.madforlivet.com and has published a number of books in Danish on subjects such as healthy fats, cancer and food. Gluten-Free Secrets is Anettes ninth book and her first in English. The book is co-authored by Lone Bendtsen who has been baking gluten-free bread professionally for years and is currently managing an organic bakery in Denmark.

Gluten-Free Secrets offers background information and practical advice on how to manage a gluten-free lifestyle, and also provides a wide range of gluten-free recipes for bread, wraps and cakes as well as lunch and dinner dishes. The majority of the recipes are also without dairy products based on cow’s milk and without sugar and yeast. The few recipes that include these ingredients all suggest alternatives.

With thanks to Anette for this article. The English version of Gluten-Free Secrets has an anticipated release date of 25th September 2014. It will be available on the Cytoplan website at a date to be confirmed.

If you have any questions regarding this article, any of the health topics raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Amanda) by phone or email at any time. If you want to be alerted by email when a new post is published simply add your email address in the ‘Get The Latest Post By Email’ in the right-hand column.

Amanda Williams, Cytoplan Ltd
amanda@cytoplan.co.uk, 01684 310099

[1] A.Fasano et al;”Spectrum of gluten-related disorders: consensus on new nomenclature and classification”, BMC Med. 2012 Feb 7;10:13. doi: 10.1186/1741-7015-10-13

[2] Alberto Rubio–Tapia et al “Increased Prevalence and Mortality in Undiagnosed Celiac Disease” Gastroenterology, Vol. 137, Issue 1, Pp 88–93, July 2009

[3] Biesiekierski JR, Peters SL, Newnham ED, Rosella O, Muir JG, Gibson PR. “No effects of gluten in patients with self-reported non-celiac gluten sensitivity after dietary reduction of fermentable, poorly absorbed, short-chain carbohydrates.” Gastroenterology. 2013 Aug;145(2):320-8.e1-3. doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2013.04.051. Epub 2013 May 4.

Last updated on 5th March 2020 by cytoffice


4 thoughts on “Why Gluten isn’t good for you

  1. Absolutely true – symptoms all experienced in my family. We will definitely try and change our diets from now on. Thank you very much.

  2. Whilst I agree that modern wheat is causing more problems, I wouldn’t advocate anyone switching to gluten-free products without a formal diagnosis, just to rule out Coeliac condition, or any other digestive condition. In the UK if you go gluten-free and then asked to be checked for Coeliac condition you will get a false result, meaning that if you are a real Coeliac you won’t be able to have the prescription items as you’ve not gone through the diagnostic process.

    Get checked first and then proceed to a gluten-free diet. There might be other under-lying conditions which might be missed if you self-diagnose.

    1. Dear Janice,
      Many thanks for your comment and interest. I would say that we tolerate grains to a greater or lesser degree, depending on our general health and digestive health. So I do not think anyone would suffer ill effects from going gluten free, or in fact following a Paleo diet.
      I still feel that we are not adapted to grains, in particular processed grains where the gluten (protein) structure has been changed. I also do not think going gluten free is faddish, although I do agree that faddish or limited diets without good reason are potentially harmful.
      Thanks again, Amanda

    2. Janice,

      False positive results, as well as false negatives are common and, thus, a blood-test is not really a reliable test method. If coeliac is suspected, there are other more reliable (and more definitive) testing options. And since the condition would require a gluten-free diet anyway, why not just go for it and try? Other health conditions can still be diagnosed if they are, indeed, the problem, if gluten is not the cause.

      I had developed digestive, skin and what appeared to be auto-immune joint problems that were gradually getting worse every year … After four years, I finally went to see my GP about it and to my surprise she, and subsequently two dermatologists suggested I might be reacting to gluten … They referred me for blood-tests, but it was going to be two weeks before I could have the sample taken … I figured that I might as well try and cut gluten-containing foods to see if I feel better … The result was so dramatic and so quick, I decided to go gluten free and cancelled the upcoming blood test – there was no way I was going to eat gluten again, irrespective of the test results! Several months later, my joints are 85% better, I had no hay fever for the first time in 15 years, strangely, my childhood cat allergy has also gone completely and my skin is much-much better! Digestion has improved vastly too. Now I stress that this is my personal experience, but I’m so grateful to the GP for suggesting it!

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