Is It Just a Myth That Gluten and Dairy are Bad for You?

There is now a gluten-free version of all your favorite foods. Your favorite restaurant uses a tiny “G” to mark every menu item that doesn’t contain this hazardous ingredient. You may even have a friend who swears that giving up gluten changed her life.

Does this mean gluten and dairy really is bad? Should you give it up? Is a gluten-free diet the secret to better health and more energy?

And what about dairy? Milk products take the blame for everything from weight gain to acne to cancer. Is it time to give up cheese and yogurt, too?

It’s wonderful living in the age of information, but sometimes it can be confusing and filled with fear-tactics and food avoidance. Are gluten and dairy truly to blame? How do you separate the truth from the grabby headlines?

Here is a no-nonsense guide to the real story behind nutritional needs, gluten and dairy, and your starting with one of the most common questions:

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein complex that is made when the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye called gliadin and glutenin combine with water. In Latin, gluten literally translates to “glue.” This substance is responsible for the elasticity associated with baked products and pasta. If you’ve ever tried gluten-free bread or cookies, you know they can be drier and crumble easily. This is because they lack the gluten protein that holds everything together. Gluten itself, however, contains no essential nutrients.

Why Does Gluten Get a Bad Rap? 

Historically, gluten was known to be bad for those who have gluten intolerance, sensitivity, or allergy. 

The best-known population of gluten and dairy avoiders are individuals with celiac disease. This is an autoimmune disorder in which the consumption of gluten leads to inflammation and damage in the intestinal tract. People who have celiac disease avoid gluten at all costs not because they fear weight gain or bloating, but because they can become gravely ill.

Others are gluten sensitive. This means they exhibit some celiac disease symptoms without actually incurring intestinal damage. They avoid this protein to prevent cramps, diarrhea, and other digestive issues. People who have a wheat allergy also steer clear of gluten.

However, in recent times, more and more of the population have been experiencing the symptoms of gluten sensitivity like IBS, autoimmune disorders, and skin issues such as eczema. Most people do not realize their issues could be stemming from gluten.

When gluten enters your digestive system, a toxin called Zonulin is released that opens up the cell barrier in your intestines.  When the junctions between these cells open, it allows foreign proteins to enter the body that otherwise should only be passing through the digestive tract.  Immune cells flood the area and create an inflammatory response. The repeated damage to this area can cause those to become sensitive to wheat because of the inability to properly digest it and having foreing proteins in the body. This can also cause sensitivity to other foods that are in their diet, allergies, and autoimmune issues. 

The issue seems to be stemming from gluten that is specifically grown in the United States. Whether it be the use of GMO seeds that we have not evolved to be able to properly digest or the pesticides and chemicals that are used, many people note that they do not experience issues with breads, pastas, and cereals in countries outside of the United States. 

How Do I Deal with Gluten?

If this sounds like you, try experimenting with removing breads and pastas and cereals from your diet for three weeks.  Three weeks is how long it takes for your digestive system to regenerate new cells. It is recommended to use supplements, specifically, probiotics to repopulate your gut flora, L-glutamine to heal the junctions between those cells, and a complete digestive enzyme to break down all of the food so that it is less likely to cause damage. Be watchful for foods like soup or sauces that can have hidden flour. 

The good news is, there is plenty of carbohydrate foods that are delicious and naturally gluten-free. Sweet potatoes and regular potatoes, rice, oatmeal, grits, beans and legumes, buckwheat, quinoa, and couscous are just a few natural grains that are gluten-free.  For this experiment, try to fill your meals with as many of these as possible for the carbs on your plate to feel full and satisfied.  

Unfortunately, gluten-free versions of your favorite gluten-filled grain can be a hit or miss as far as having nutritional value.  They may contain fillers, gums, and added sweeteners to give it the elasticity it is missing.  Look for simple ingredients such as almond flour, potato starch, or rice flour.

The good news is, once you allow your digestive system to heal completely, you should be able to add back in foods containing gluten if you eat them sparingly to decrease the amount of inflammation that could be caused.

Gluten: The Verdict

One of the benefits of removing gluten from your diet is the reduction of simple sugars or preservatives.  Sometimes grains that are “fortified” with ingredients such as iron, calcium, or folic acid are in a form that is not digestible by the human body. The gluten-free carbohydrates such as potatoes and rice have more fiber, water, and vitamins and minerals than baked goods.

The plus side is when you reduce inflammation, you can then reduce the stress on your body and actually lose weight while having more energy, sleeping better, and better digestion. 

If removing gluten from your diet does not seem to help, it is possible that you could also have a condition like Crohn’s disease or other IBD. Seek the insight of a medical professional before making a dietary change. 

Why Does Dairy Have a Bad Rap?

In the past, it was common to be told to drink 3 whole glasses of milk a day.  However, more and more people join the anti-dairy crowd. They believe milk, cheese, and similar foods lead to weight gain, diabetes, and even cancer. Others may observe that dairy is bad for your skin and can cause acne.

But perhaps the most scientifically compelling argument against dairy is that adult humans are not suited to consume it, genetically speaking. In infancy, human beings produce lactase, an enzyme that digests lactose. This is the main sugar present in dairy products. As humans mature into adulthood, they no longer produce lactase to properly digest dairy.

The result is a vast population of lactose-intolerant individuals. Those who are lactose intolerant respond to dairy intake with symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, and even vomiting.

What are the Benefits of Consuming Dairy?

The reason that it is encouraged to drink milk is because it is famous for its high calcium content. The dairy industry has long championed milk as the best solution for bone health and a weapon against osteoporosis. Do these claims hold up?

Unfortunately, no.  There is a lot of calcium in almonds and seeds, salmon, beans and legumes, spinach and kale, bok choy, and tofu without the negative effects of lactose intolerance and excessive sugar. 

The issue stems again from food processing in the United States.  Due to the pasteurization process, antibiotics, and chemicals used for preservation as well as separating the fat from milk, many adults have stomach issues, acne, and sinus congestion when consuming milk. Regular consumption of dairy can cause the thickening of mucus that causes nasal congestion so stay away from dairy if you feel like you are getting sick. 

Dairy: The Verdict

So what’s the answer? ARE gluten and dairy bad for you or good for you?

It depends. While dairy itself is not absolutely essential for an adult diet, not everyone is sensitive to dairy. If you are properly producing the enzyme that breaks down lactose then you may be able to enjoy milk and its byproducts. The nutrients that they claim make dairy so healthy can be obtained by eating a well-rounded diet.

And if you do consume dairy, stick to products that come from grass-fed animals. Grass-fed dairy products have a better nutrient profile and contain more beneficial fatty acids. If you experience any digestive symptoms from dairy, try goat milk over cow milk. Many people also find fermented products like yogurt and kefir easier to digest.

Bottom Line: It All Depends on Your Body

There is so much confusion surrounding gluten and dairy because there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Each individual body is different. Some people benefit from gluten and dairy, others should avoid it.

Metabolism, health history, lifestyle… these are all factors that influence which dietary plan will help you meet your goals. Whether you want to lose weight, increase energy, or just feel better, reach out to a nutritional counselor. A professional looks at you as an individual and helps you find solutions based on your unique needs.

If you’re not sure where to start, consider reaching out to us at PH² nutrition. We love helping people discover the best wellness journey.