Gluten is everywhere and tempts us at all times. Plus, it’s a highly addictive substance. This article will attempt to explain why you should never cheat on your gluten-free diet, and how doing so may be causing more harm than good. This article may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosures and disclaimers before reading this article.
The gluten-free diet is not an easy “diet” to follow.
I’ve been eating gluten free for eight years and while it does get easier with time, it’s never easy to be gluten free.
To many people, complaining about how hard it is to be gluten free might sound like a first world problem. But when you’re in the thick of a gluten-free diet, and cannot eat gluten for medically necessary reasons, the struggle is real. Very real.
In this article, I’ll talk about:
- Six reasons why gluten is so tempting
- What cheating looks like (definition)
- Six reasons why you should never cheat on your gluten-free diet
- Tips to staying strong and g-free
For additional information about living with celiac disease or gluten disorders, please visit my article library.
Why Is Gluten So Tempting?
Gluten is tempting for so many reasons, and I’d like to explore why in this section.
(1) Gluten is an Addictive Substance
Gluten is highly addictive, and when you’re trying to give it up, you experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms similar to giving up nicotine or crack, according to Dr. William Davis in his pioneering bestselling book, Wheat Belly.
Dr. Davis says that 30 percent of people who stop eating wheat experience withdrawal symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, irritability, and even depression in the first few days and weeks of implementing a gluten-free diet.
It’s tempting to eat just another “hit” of wheat in order to calm those symptoms, which leads to a vicious cycle of eating gluten, experiencing unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, eating gluten, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, etc.
Your brain is telling you to eat gluten because gluten makes it feel good… and every time you eat it, you’re training your brain’s reward center to ask for more.
(2) You Have a Gut Imbalance
It’s no secret that your gut is in charge of what you eat.
When your gut is demanding something, it’s like an annoying toddler asking for the same toy over and over again because it knows you’ll eventually cave.
A gut imbalance happens when there’s more bad bacteria in your gut than good bacteria. Bacteria keep each other in check.
A gut imbalance can result from eating too many sugary foods (sugar feeds bad bacteria) or from taking antibiotics, which kill all bacteria in your gut, not just the bad bacteria you want to get rid of.
To resolve a gut imbalance, you can do a few things.
First, avoid sugar – and white refined grains, which convert to sugar upon consumption, as much as possible. You can find tips to cutting sugar from your diet in this article.
Second, talk to your doctor about taking a high dose of probiotics. I personally recommend 60-90 billion CFUs until you restore your gut flora, and then 40-50 CFUs for every day maintenance. You can read more about the importance and benefits of probiotics in this article.
Third, add probiotic-rich fermented foods to your diet, including kombucha (fermented tea), and lacto-fermented pickles. Avoid sugar-laden yogurts and probiotic-infused beverages, as these foods and beverages contain large amounts of sugar and very little beneficial bacteria.
(3) You Have a Nutritional Deficiency
Your gluten cravings might be intense because your body is craving specific nutrients it’s not getting from the food you eat.
You might also have a nutrient deficiency because your small intestine hasn’t healed. Your small intestine is responsible for nutrient absorption and distribution. When it’s continually damaged by ongoing consumption of gluten, it cannot function properly.
Intense cravings for gluten more likely than not are intense cravings for nutrient-dense foods, like fruits and vegetables, in your body’s effort to recover from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Your body is probably low on these essential vitamins and it’s making you crave more food.
(4) You Crave Easy Street
There’s nothing like feeling like a social pariah to make you go back to eating gluten again. I get it.
- Your friends are socializing around food and you want to be included in the fun.
- You’re traveling the world and you don’t want finding food you can eat to be the centerpiece – or Debbie Downer – of your travels.
- You’re busy and don’t feel like cooking tonight.
Oh, how I miss those carefree eating days.
Today, eating is a chore. I admit it. I can’t “just grab a bite to eat” anywhere, and there are few places I can eat at that doesn’t require advance planning.
When I crave easy street, I simply remind myself that there are plenty of gluten-free foods, and taking care of myself trumps easy street.
Today, I plan all my meals to make sure I avoid the I don’t feel like cooking fast-food trap. And it’s why I created my weekly gluten-free meal planning service.
Maybe you don’t crave gluten as much as you crave the normalcy of carefree eating? And that normalcy is what is leading you to cheat.
(5) You Have an Emotional Attachment to Gluten
Most us are emotionally connected to food. Food is as divisive as politics and religion to many people.
Many of my clients tell me that their grandmother is totally unsupportive of the gluten-free diet, which most of the time means she doesn’t understand it, or her generation didn’t have a problem with bread.
Many of us feel attached to the foods of our childhood.
Pizza on Sunday night.
Stuffing at Thanksgiving.
Sandwiches inside our lunch boxes.
Take away the foods that raised us, and we feel lost.
I’m not above those emotions either. I miss challah bread, Jewish pastries my aunt makes, and New York pizza. It took me many years to mourn the loss of these foods, especially knowing the gluten-free replacements just aren’t the same.
(6) You Haven’t Allowed Enough Time to Pass
You might still crave gluten because you haven’t been on the gluten-free diet long enough. The gluten-free diet is a long game, and it can take weeks, months or even years to feel healthy.
Unfortunately, many people eat gluten free for just a few days or weeks before throwing up their hands in the air and declaring, “It’s not working for me.”
Most people give up right before they were close to overcoming their addiction, and achieving noticeable health benefits.
Every day you resist the urge to take a bite of wheat, the closer you’ll be to ridding it from your life for good.
What Does Cheating Look Like?
Cheating on your gluten-free diet can come in many forms.
I have had several clients with celiac disease who continue to eat gluten despite knowing the it’s no good for them.
However, more often than not, the people who cheat on their gluten-free diets are those who have a gluten sensitivity. Unfortunately, the research on gluten sensitivities is fledging, and therefore, because “science” doesn’t take the disorder seriously, people with the disorder don’t take it as seriously as well.
Of course, I am making a generalization. I know many people with gluten sensitivities who suffer just as bad or worse from symptoms related to gluten as their celiac disease counterparts. Many people take their diet seriously. But a large number do not, and for the purposes of this article, I am focusing on them.
Here is what cheating might sound like. I bet you’ve heard a gluten-free friend say one of these things at one time or another:
- I’m not celiac, so I can eat just a little gluten here and there.
- I’m just gluten intolerant, so I’m not worried about cross contamination.
- I’m on a low gluten diet because I have silent celiac.
- Gluten doesn’t bother me that much, so I just avoid it but I’m not crazy about avoiding it or anything like that.
- I always eat gluten free, but since it’s my birthday, I’ll eat the gluten-full cake, just this once.
- I’m going on vacation, so I don’t have time to be gluten free. I’ll resume my diet when I return.
- It’s okay, I’ll eat the lasagna you made even though it contains gluten. I’ll just pick away the noodles. I’ll be fine.
I get it. It’s hard to eat gluten free 100 percent of the time in a world full of gluten.
And when the world doesn’t take your disorder seriously, as is the case with those with “just” gluten sensitivity, it can be even harder to resist temptation.
I assure you, however, that regardless if you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, you must take your gluten-free diet seriously.
In fact, people who are “just” sensitive to gluten can and will experience just as much or more inflammation in their bodies as someone with celiac disease, according to Dr. Tom O’Bryan in his book, The Autoimmune Fix.
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 their disorder is 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. This means that even “just a bite” of gluten will trigger the antibodies in your immune system to go into full attack mode.
Why You Shouldn’t Cheat
The following are reasons why you should never cheat on your gluten-free diet regardless if you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
(1) You’ll Feel Awful
Most people with celiac disease or 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 there are more than 60 symptoms connected to a gluten disorder, and many of the symptoms have nothing to do with gastrointestinal symptoms at all.
Avoiding gluten and taking your gluten-free diet seriously ensures you will feel your best at all times. It will save you from contracting a slew of other disorders and from doctor’s visits. In fact, one could argue that you’re irresponsibility is what is clogging up our healthcare system given that your disorders may have been completely preventable had you only followed the diet properly.
(2) You’ll Die Earlier
I don’t want to sound sensational or dire, but it’s important that you know – whether you have 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 agree?
In another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2009, researchers examined 351,000 intestinal lining biopsies – finding about 46,000 on the celiac disease spectrum, 29,000 with celiac disease and 17,000 with early stage 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!
People with celiac disease 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!
Why is the mortality rate higher for those with gluten sensitivity? Some researcher speculate it’s because someone with celiac disease takes their gluten-free diet more seriously than someone with “just” gluten sensitivity. What do you think?
Please know that I’m telling you this information not to scare you, but to help you understand that cheating on your gluten-free diet, regardless if you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, has serious, life-affecting consequences.
(3) You’ll Accumulate Autoimmune Disease(s)
Need another reason not to cheat on your gluten-free diet?
Gluten might be the trigger food that ripens your body for accumulating additional autoimmune diseases.
In fact, according to a study published in Gastroenterology, people with 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, you will likely progress further along 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 starting to show that celiac disease is one manifestation of a sensitivity to wheat, and there are hundreds of other autoimmune conditions that may be triggered by gluten.
(4) You Elevate Your Lymphoma Risk
If you have celiac disease, any gluten exposure will damage your small intestine and prevent it from healing and thereby, working. This leaves celiac patients living not only in a chronic state of nutrient depravity, but also persistent damage puts celiac disease patients at serious risk of lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that people with celiac disease who 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.
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, celiac patients with persistent villous atrophy (aka, 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 continue to eat gluten.
(5) No One Will Take You Seriously
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 eat 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 put the rest of us at risk.
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 thereby all 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’ve had many clients go gluten free, recover and feel better, and then start eating gluten again. Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re “cured” because you ate gluten free for three months and feel better. The reason you feel better is because you stopped eating gluten… and now that you’re eating gluten again, your disease will reemerge, sometimes with a vengeance.
(6) You’ll Undo All Your Progress
Why eat gluten free, and put yourself through the trouble of doing it, if you’re going to eat “just a little gluten” here and there? Why bother?
When you eat gluten, you’re undoing all your progress – all your healing. A weak moment on the lips is causing a catastrophic chain reaction in your body. Just as you can say one wrong thing and have your reputation destroyed, eating just one bite can destroy all your progress.
Either you eat gluten free or not. Which is it?
Remember, when you eat a bite of gluten, you’re only cheating yourself out of the chance of healthy life. To me, health is wealth.
How to Stay Strong and G-Free
It takes a lot of physical and emotional willpower to be loyal to your gluten-free diet.
And while the gluten-free diet is never easy, it will get easier with time.
Continue to strive towards eating 100 percent gluten-free all of the time. You can do this by:
- Plan your meals. When you plan your meals for the week, you will know what you’re eating and won’t be tempted by gluten because it’s there or easy to grab. My weekly meal plans can help you plan all your meals and snacks for the week.
- Eat at home more. Eating at home will lower your risk of getting accidentally glutened at a restaurant. When you eat at home, you control the food and how it’s prepared.
- Focus on nutrition. Eat more naturally gluten-free, whole foods, like fruits and vegetables. Read this article to understand what 10 foods are naturally gluten-free and good for you. Take supplements and probiotics to improve your gut and whole-body health.
- Learn to cook and bake. Recreate the foods you love most so you never feel deprived.
- Keep healthy snacks on hand. When hunger strikes, you’ll be prepared if you have a pantry and fridge full of delicious gluten-free snacks.
- Surround yourself with supportive people. Use your newfound diet as the opportunity make gluten-free friends and surround yourself with people who care about your health. “Break [gluten-free] bread” with those who want you to be healthy and never pressure or tempt you to eat “just a bite” of gluten.
- Stay strong. The diet gets easier with time (albeit, never easy). You got this.
Remember, you’ve been given one body in this lifetime. Take care of it.
What tips can you share to help others avoid gluten temptation?