This article about why you should never cheat on your gluten-free diet contains affiliate links.
I know, I know. It’s hard to be gluten-free. I get it. I’ve been gluten-free for six years and while it does get easier with time, it’s never truly easy to be gluten-free.
In a world full of gluten, avoiding the protein found in wheat, rye and barley, is an everyday challenge for the millions of people living with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities.
As I often say, the struggle is real.
Because it’s challenging to adhere to the gluten-free diet 100 percent of the time, many people cheat. Some say they’ll eat “just a little” because tasting that delicious chocolate cake is too hard to resist. I get it, it’s hard to watch others eat something that you know is delicious and you cannot eat it. The feeling of depravity comes to light in such situations.
However, cheating on your gluten-free diet, or even those on so-called “low gluten” diets, is doing little to improve your health. You can’t be “a little pregnant,” nor can you be a “little gluten-free” if you want to benefit from the diet.
In fact, if you’re only gluten-free 95 percent of the time, and then enjoy a slice of pizza once a month, you are undoing ALL the hard work you put into being gluten-free in the first place. All the healing your body has incurred will be undone, and the memory B cells are lined up again, ready to attack the gluten enemy and wreak havoc on your immune system.
Any progress you made to heal your body through the elimination of gluten in the first place is shattered by your simple act of caving to a weak moment on the lips. Think of it this way, most of us live wonderful, upstanding lives. However, one slight misstep can blow our good reputation to bits! That’s what happens when you eat gluten. If you eat a little gluten after being gluten-free for weeks or months, you’ll blow your good health to bits in just one bite!
Below I share with you five reasons you should never cheat on your gluten-free diet.
Please note these tips are for both people who are considered “gluten sensitive” and for those who have diagnosed celiac disease. (Read more about the differences between gluten sensitivity vs. celiac disease.)
Unfortunately, people who are sensitive to gluten (or gluten intolerant) are being conditioned to believe their disorder isn’t as serious as someone with celiac disease. I hear my gluten sensitive friends say, “I’m not celiac, so I’m not as sensitive as you.” I’m calling “BS” on such a notion – and once you read this article, you will too!
In fact, you should know that people who are sensitive to gluten will experience just as much or more inflammation in their bodies than someone with celiac disease, according to Dr. Tom O’Bryan in his book, The Autoimmune Fix (pg. 28). While celiac disease is a full-blown autoimmune disease (the damage is done), Dr. O’Bryan says that someone who is gluten sensitive is on the autoimmune spectrum, and, if left untreated, their symptoms will progress into a slew of damaging diseases such as obesity, dementia, diabetes, heart disease, etc. More on that in a bit…
On top of it all, Dr. O’Bryan says it only takes ONE small exposure to gluten to activate an immune system response. Yep, as mentioned, even a bite of gluten will trigger the antibodies in your immune system to go into full force to protect you.
So let’s talk about why 100 percent adherence to a gluten-free diet is key, and why you should never cheat on your gluten-free diet.
Five Reasons to Never Cheat on Your Gluten-Free Diet
1. You’ll Feel Awful
Most people with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity experience immediate symptoms – everything from intense bloating and embarressing gas, to joint pain, skin disorders, migraines and more. For me, after eating gluten I blow up like a balloon and then urgently have to use the bathroom!
Did you know that there are literally hundreds of symptoms that have been connected to gluten exposure?!? I have a hard time understanding why someone would willingly eat something that they know will make them feel sick.
Avoiding gluten and taking your gluten-free diet seriously ensures you will feel your best at all times, not to mention unclog our healthcare system (if you actually help yourself feel better by changing your diet, you will be less dependent on our healthcare system to fix you – YOU will fix you).
2. You’ll Die Earlier
I don’t want to sound sensational or dire, but it’s important that you know – whether you have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease – your relative risk of death is higher than the general population.
A study published in 2001 in the Lancet followed celiac patients for more than 20 years and recorded their eating patterns. Patients who ate gluten once per month, even if they didn’t feel bad after eating gluten, incurred a sixfold increase in the relative risk of death. That’s a high price to pay to eat wheat, wouldn’t you say?
In another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2009, researchers examined 351,00 intestinal lining biopsies – finding about 46,000 on the celiac disease spectrum, 29,000 with celiac disease and 17,000 with early stages of celiac disease development (the period before the microvilli were completely worn down). However, there were another 13,000 people in the study that did not have positive bloodwork nor worn down microvilli but still had gluten sensitivity and inflammation.
What the researchers found will shock you!
Celiacs had only a 39 percent increased risk of early mortality while people with inflammation from gluten sensitivity had a 72 percent increased risk of early mortality! I believe that the mortality rate for those with gluten sensitivity is so much higher than someone with celiac disease because gluten sensitive people do not take their gluten-free diet as serious as someone with celiac disease.
I’m telling you this information not to scare you, but to help you understand that cheating on your gluten-free diet, especially when you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, has serious consequences and you must take your diet seriously.
3. You’ll Accumulate Autoimmune Disease(s)
Need another reason not to cheat on your gluten-free diet?
Your gluten sensitivity might be the trigger food that ripens your body for autoimmune disease. (Learn more about autoimmune disease.) In fact, according to a study published in Gastroenterology, people with a non-celiac wheat sensitivity (aka gluten sensitivity) have double the amount of elevated levels of antinuclear antibodies, which are antibodies known to manifest themselves in autoimmune conditions like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome, scleroderma, polymyositis, etc., than the levels experienced in those with celiac disease. In other words, if your exposure to gluten continues (aka, via cheating on your gluten-free diet), you will likely progress further along on the autoimmune spectrum AND your gluten sensitivity may eventually turn into a full-blown, irreversible autoimmune disease!
According to Dr. O’Bryan, elevated antibodies could be traveling in your bloodstream and destroying tissue wherever the weak link in your chain resides (small intestine, thyroid, joints, etc.), making you susceptible to a slew of autoimmune conditions. Remember, research is just beginning to emerge that shows celiac disease as just one manifestation of a sensitivity to wheat; there are hundreds of other autoimmune conditions that are initiated by a trigger food (gluten or wheat).
4. You Elevate Your Lymphoma Risk
Gluten exposure over time will continue to damage the small intestine and prevent the intestinal lining from healing. Such persistent damage puts patients with celiac disease at serious risk of lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
In fact, a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that celiacs that incurred persistent intestinal damage had a higher risk of lymphoma than celiac patients whose intestines had healed. The best way to heal your intestinal lining is through strict adherence to a gluten-free diet. (Read the additional steps, beyond the gluten-free diet, that I took to heal from the damages of celiac disease.)
In another study, researchers found that patients with celiac disease had an annual lymphoma risk of 67.9 per 100,000, a 2.81-fold increase compared with the general population risk of 24.2 per 100,000. However, those celiac patients with persistent villous atrophy (this is the damaged microvilli surrounding the small intestine) incurred a larger annual risk of lymphoma – 102.4 per 100,000 – compared with those with healed intestines, whose risk was much less at 31.5 per 100,000.
These findings suggest that intestinal healing should be the ultimate goal for patients with celiac disease. (And the intestinal lining cannot heal if you cheat on your gluten-free diet.)
5. No One Will Take You Seriously
Finally, if you cheat on your gluten-free diet, no one will take you or your diet seriously. I cannot tell you how annoying I find it when someone tells their waiter they’re gluten-free, but then they take a “sip” of their spouse’s beer or a “small bite” of their friend’s chocolate cake. Once you cheat on your gluten-free diet, you won’t be taken seriously ever again (at least not by me!).
On top of that, when you cheat on your gluten-free diet, you ruin it for the rest of us. What I mean is that when you make a fuss to your waiter about needing a gluten-free meal, and then she sees you taking bread from the bread basket, your waitress will doubt that your gluten disorder (and other gluten disorders) are real. Then, when I come along and insist on a gluten-free meal, she may not take my request as serious as I need her to take it because you’ve conditioned her to believe gluten-free diets do not need to be taken seriously.
On top of it all, I have known many people to go gluten-free, then they feel better, and then they start eating gluten again (one of my friend’s doctors told her she was all better and could start eating gluten again – gasp!). Don’t be an idiot. The reason you’re better is because you stopped eating gluten… and now that you’re eating gluten again, your disease will reemerge… eventually. You can read more about why some gluten-free people annoy me – hint, cheating on your gluten-free diet is the main reason!
Either You’re Gluten-Free or Not
Now that you’ve read this article, I hope that you see the harmful effects that can happen when you cheat on your gluten-free diet – both in terms of your health and how you’re perceived by outsiders. I compel you to take a stand. Choose a side. Either you’re gluten-free (for life) or you’re not gluten-free at all. Regardless, please stop telling people you’re gluten-free if you’re constantly cheating on your diet. Promise?
Oh, and when you cheat on your gluten-free diet, I think we can all agree that you’re only cheating yourself out of the healthy life you deserve. To me, health is wealth.
How to Detect Hidden Gluten Consumption
Many people follow a gluten-free diet, but still experience painful symptoms or everyday discomforts. It’s important to know if those symptoms are related to continued-yet-unknown gluten exposure, or if they’re related to something else.
I recently learned about an at-home test by The Gluten Detective that you can take to test yourself for gluten via a urine or stool sample.
Once you order the test, simply follow the instructions to test your urine or stool for gluten. It’s a little tedious (and to some, it will be a little gross to handle your poo in such an interesting way), but it’s all in the name of your good health!
Please note that the stool test is 10 times more sensitive at detecting gluten than the urine test because gluten is mostly cleared from the body through the bowels. The Gluten Detective recommends following up a negative urine test the next day with the stool test to catch anything the urine test may have missed.
Is the Test Accurate?
The molecule on which the test is based is proven to be >96 percent specific for gluten fragments and each tests is 90-95+ percent reliable within their respective time windows and limits of detection. The urine test can detect gluten if you’ve consumed at least two bites of bread in past day. The stool test will detect even a small crumb of bread consumed over previous days.
I took both the urine and stool test after suspecting gluten exposure one night – both tests came back negative. The following is the result of my urine test (yes, it looks like a pregnancy test, I know).
You can purchase a test at The Gluten Detective (it’s a great way to test if your child is compliant outside of the home too – yep, kids cheat too!).