Side Effects of Starting a Gluten-Free Diet

There are several good reasons to cut gluten out of your diet, and these days it seems like everyone is recommending it. But what are the symptoms of going gluten-free?

There are certain consequences with starting a gluten free diet. (Image: nata_vkusidey/iStock/GettyImages)

And are there negative side effects on the gluten-free diet? It turns out, that going gluten-free is beneficial for those who need it. But there are consequences to the diet that you should be aware of before starting.

Why Go Gluten-Free?

The gluten-free diet has become wildly popular, but who really needs it, and what is it for? Celiac disease causes gluten sensitivity according to a BMJ October 2015 article. It can lead to other issues as well, from gastrointestinal to fertility complications. A Gastroenterology May 2015 article defined celiac disease as an immune-based disorder, impacting multiple systems, triggered by gluten in individuals at genetic risk.

You don't have to have celiac disease to have a gluten sensitivity, though. There has been a recent rise in cases of nonceliac gluten sensitivity. It's typically triggered by foods containing wheat, barley, and rye. The cause is unknown, but there's a relation to illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome and autoimmune deficiencies.

The cause of wheat sensitivities is also unknown and lacks a diagnosis method, according to a November 2018 NHS article. The symptoms of wheat sensitivity come on slowly, sometimes hours after eating. If you have this sensitivity, you might experience bloating, cramps and diarrhea. An actual wheat allergy requires an allergist for diagnosis and can cause itching, sneezing and wheezing.

Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity

You may not have a diagnosis yet but still suspect that you have a sensitivity to gluten. In that case, before making any changes, it's a good idea to review your symptoms. That way, you can tell if you are likely to have a sensitivity, which can aid your doctor's diagnosis.

A Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology study from September 2015 lists symptoms such as:

  • Abdominal bloating
  • Foggy mind
  • Depression
  • Oral lesions
  • Intestinal pain

NHS created a helpful list of symptoms for sensitivity to eating bread:

  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain

It's essential to look at these two lists because you may have a wheat sensitivity but not gluten sensitivity. Or you may have a gluten sensitivity, which means you might be sensitive to wheat as well. However, what upsets one person with gluten sensitivity may not bother another. That's why you need to monitor your symptoms and edit your diet accordingly.

Symptoms of Going Gluten-Free

Since gluten triggers the symptoms, it comes as no surprise that a gluten-free diet ends them. An Expert Review of Gastroenterology & Hepatology January 2014 article noted this side effect of gluten-free diets.

The diet is effective at eliminating symptoms of celiac and other gluten sensitivities. That means that you shouldn't have any bloating after going gluten-free. Well, you shouldn't have bloating caused by gluten at least. It also means, your stomach pains should dissipate and your mind should clear as your mood improves and your bowel movements become easier.

An Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics March 2015 article discusses the positive impacts of a gluten-free diet on diarrhea. Eliminating gluten improves stool quality for those with diarrhea-predominate IBS. Depending on how you implement these changes, the diet can have other benefits as well. A StatPearls March 2019 article notes the weight loss effects of a low carb diet — a common method for going gluten-free.

Nutritional Impacts of the Diet

An August 2016 Journal of Pediatrics article discusses the nutritional impacts of gluten sensitivity. Celiac or nonceliac gluten sensitivities can cause malabsorption of nutrients creating deficiencies. Changing to a gluten-free diet helps people suffering from side effects. The diet reverses the malabsorption and nutrient deficiencies. It will also eliminate the symptoms of celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

Celiac disease causes poor absorption in the intestines, as mentioned in the NHS article. Foods containing gluten increase this reaction, resulting in worse absorption. By eliminating these types of foods, you allow for the lining of your stomach to have some healing. In turn, this makes it easier for your stomach to absorb the nutrients in the foods you're eating.

The Negative Side Effects

As with any diet, it's essential to understand the possible negative side effects of a gluten-free diet. Since the diet's made for those with intolerances or sensitivities, there may be a better diet for you if you don't have either of these ailments. If you suffer from an intolerance or sensitivity, though, understanding the adverse side effects can help you prepare.

A March 2014 study in Plant Foods for Human Nutrition found a lack of nutrients in some gluten-free substitutes. That's because some gluten-free products have different nutritional values than what they're replacing. So if you're recreating your diet using gluten-free substitutes, you may not be getting the same nutrients you're used to. And, if you're not careful, you may end up with a deficiency, so pay attention to the caloric, macronutrient, vitamin and mineral content.

A study in Clinical Nutrition's December 2016 issue listed the following deficiencies that too much "gluten-free" products can cause:

  • Fiber
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin B12
  • Folate
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Magnesium

Your Next Step

You may be looking forward to going wheat-free to get rid of the side effects. If you suffer from sensitivity or intolerance, you're tired of intestinal diatribes. And that's why it's a good thing you're taking control of what you eat.

With the possible health risks involved, though, it's essential to work with a licensed dietitian. The products made to substitute gluten aren't just lacking in nutrients, they can be unhealthy. So if you need to cut gluten from your diet, make sure you're doing it the right way. And the best way to do it right is through the assistance of a medical professional.

There is little evidence that a gluten-free diet has benefits for those who aren't intolerant to it. So while you may have heard great things about going gluten-free, it's not a fad diet you should just jump on. If, however, you suspect that you that your body doesn't do well with gluten, talk to your doctor for an official diagnosis. If you genuinely have a sensitivity, a healthy gluten-free diet can do wonders at eliminating your symptoms.

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