Should Everyone Go Gluten Free?

“Should I stop eating gluten?”

As a dietitian, that’s a question I get asked a lot by my AnneTheRD nutrition counseling clients. I’ve been thinking about doing a post on gluten for awhile, so when in the comments of my 7 Common Nutrition Myths blog post many of you requested a post on gluten, I decided it was time.

Should Everyone Go Gluten Free? Thoughts from a registered dietitian
Before I get into my opinions, let’s talk first about what gluten actually is. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barely, spelt, triticale, and rye. It acts as a sort of elastic, helping foods to maintain their shape.


For people with specific medical conditions, it is important they avoid gluten. The most well-known form of gluten intolerance is celiac disease, which is an autoimmune condition in which gluten ingestion causes intestinal damage. Celiac disease affects about 1% of the U.S. population, according to the National Institutes of Health. For those that have it, it is imperative to avoid gluten, even in very small quantities, as the resulting intestinal damage will inhibit their ability to absorb vital nutrients.

Other people may need to avoid gluten due to a wheat allergy, manifesting as abnormal skin, respiratory, or gastrointestinal reactions.

Recently, however, another form of intolerance has been discovered, called non-celiac gluten sensitivity. In these cases, when gluten is consumed, the person will experience celiac disease-like symptoms, like diarrhea, bloating, fatigue, and joint pain, but they do not have the accompanying intestinal damage.

In the case of those with gluten sensitivity, gluten is often avoided to manage their symptoms, although accidental consumption of gluten would not cause intestinal damage and nutritional deficiencies, as with celiac disease.

So, should everyone go gluten free?

In my opinion, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, I certainly don’t think you need to avoid gluten entirely. But I do think that Americans in general rely FAR too often on processed wheat as their main source of carbohydrates, having it at pretty much every meal and snack. (See also: bread, crackers, pasta, cereal, pretzels, cookies, cakes, etc.) Having too much of anything isn’t healthy – but neither is stressing out about cutting something out entirely if you don’t need to.

wheat bread

So – my advice is, as always, to simply focus on moderation and balance. If your main carb at breakfast is gluten filled, like wheat/white bread or a wheat cereal, get your lunch and dinner carbs from another (gluten-free) form, like rice or quinoa. And above all, focus on the quality of the grains/carbohydrates that you are eating, whether it’s a wheat product or otherwise. When shopping, check to see if the ingredient list is real food and things you recognize. If not, put it back on the shelf and try to find an alternative that is.

Simply replacing a processed product’s wheat flour with gluten free flour, in my opinion, only makes something more healthy if you have a gluten intolerance or sensitivity. But eating more whole, real food – now that always makes a diet healthier.

When I hear of people going gluten free that they feel better, I say great, keep doing what works for you. But depending on how their diet was beforehand, in some of those cases, they may just be feeling better because they took a lot of the processed junk out of their diets – not necessarily because they took out gluten in particular. But at the end of the day, if they feel better, then does it really matter, so long as it’s a sustainable life change for them to avoid gluten?

Do I avoid gluten?

As you guys know, no, I don’t avoid gluten. But I also don’t eat it all day every day either, and I aim to eat less processed/more whole, real food forms of gluten (like barley or spelt, or less processed forms of sprouted or regular whole wheat bread) most of the time. Not all the time (I love my pizza!) – but most of the time.

I also generally take the approach that I vary my carb sources – for some meals I’ll do gluten free (but real food gluten free – things like quinoa, rice, oats, etc. – not lots of processed gluten free products), other meals I won’t. I aim to go with what my body wants and needs (and of course within the limitations of what is available wherever I am) at any given time.

Bottom line, guys – just focus on doing what makes you personally feel your best. Aim for variety, don’t deny yourself things you really want (unless you medically have to) because it will just backfire later, and by all means don’t stress out about it. Unless gluten makes you feel like crap, don’t worry about avoiding it – but consider not having it all day every day, if you currently are.

Like nutrition-related hot topic posts? Here are some others you might enjoy, too:


  1. 1

    Great post!
    How do you feel about the hypothesis that glyphosate herbicide (Roundup) used on wheat crops is really what is causing gluten intolerance?

    • 2

      I actually haven’t heard anything about that, so I can’t comment, but that’s interesting… would make sense why anecdotally I hear people feel better eating organic/less processed forms of wheat, like spelt… I assumed it was just because there were less additives/processed ingredients, but perhaps it’s a combination of things!

      • 3

        Definitely look up glyphosates! If you have Netflix, there are super interesting documentaries about glyphosates and Monstanto in general. I try to avoid all grain/corn products now that don’t say “non-GMO verified” because of the glyphosates…

    • 5

      wow! i’ve actually never heard of that, but i could see how it could be a cause. i dont have netflix, do you have any links or articles/journals where I could find more info?

  2. 6

    Great read! I have Celiac and have been gluten free for about seven years. The gluten free “fad” is a double-edged sword for me. It’s great to have so many options for food now, especially when dining out but I encounter a lot of negativity from people who think I’m just going through some diet phase. Thanks for helping to educate everyone!

    • 7

      That must be really frustrating when people don’t understand or respect the necessity of your diet choices! But like you said – it is nice, I’m sure, to have a lot more options now. :)

  3. 8

    Hi Anne!
    Great post. I am a Dietitian as well, and I definitely get this question a lot as well, both at work and outside of work. Sometimes I also just get it as a statement, “I’m gluten free..” because in society right now it seems like a “healthy” change. Just a couple other things to chime in.
    1) I usually tell people that if they think that something medically is wrong, get tested for celiac disease or other GI related illnesses.
    2) Just because it’s gluten free, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. So many of the products being marketed out there have been stripped of all the fiber and nutrients, and have a ton ingredients, such as refined flours, fillers, sugar, etc so that they TASTE good. Be aware that you may have to increase your total fiber intake from whole grains, veg, fruit, legumes.
    3) Gluten isn’t just in bread and bread products.. Do your research and learn what ingredients to avoid. For example, I know someone who’s “gluten-free,” yet I have seen her eat soy sauce many times…
    Happy Thursday!

    • 9

      Yes, agreed, great additions! I actually originally started adding those things in, too, but the post was becoming such a beast I decided to keep it more simple. Thank you :)

  4. 10

    What do you think is the best way to test for food allergies/sensitivities to know which foods actually cause any negative symptoms? There seem to be a lot of ways to test now.

    • 11

      I’m not sure, to be honest — I am not very well versed in all the different food allergy/sensitivity tests as I don’t provide them in my own practice. I’m sorry!

  5. 12
    Randi Riesenberg says

    Thanks for another well written and reasonable post on such a hot topic! I love your dose of reality and moderation in everything.

  6. 14

    Great article Anne! This whole month I have taken out dairy, wheat, corn and (mostly) alcohol. It has made SUCH a huge difference in how I feel. I also have had an ugly rash just on my torso that seems to come and go for no reason. Since eliminating those things it hasn’t been back. Now I just have to figure out which was the culprit, lol!

  7. 16

    Thanks for the article, Anne! You always have a great take of intuitive eating, which I appreciate. I am interested in trying to eliminate certain foods to see how it makes me feel, but I haven’t gotten around to committing yet…

    On an entirely different note, I would love to hear your opinion on genetically modified foods vs. organic vs. non-organic – all of the different labels? I was with my knitting lunch group yesterday & we were talking about that & how you can develop some real food anxiety/paranoia around the labels & what media hypes up about food…

    • 17

      I don’t have super strong opinions on the GMO thing – I mean, if there was a non GMO product right next to a GMO product I’d probably buy the non-GMO. But it’s not something I particularly focus on or seek out. I do try to buy organic food as often as possible, though, particularly when related to produce, dairy, and meat/eggs – not only because of pesticides but also because I know that if it’s meat/dairy, the animals have been treated a lot better. That said, like most things, I’m not 100% by any means, and I don’t stress out if something isn’t organic (Blue Apron, for example, isn’t organic, and obviously restaurants aren’t and we eat out a lot). I think you just have to do the best you can and pick your battles. I choose to focus mostly on whole, real food as my main thing – and try to support organic when I can.

  8. 18

    Great post! When I read the title I was immediately thinking “no!” so I am glad your post pretty much sums up how I feel about this topic and what I recommend to my nutrition clients.

  9. 19

    Hi Anne!
    Another topic I would love if you covered is intermittent fasting!

    • 20

      I don’t much about that approach, but anything that involves fasting at all I’m not a fan of as I see it tends to lead to binging later. Getting too hungry makes it really hard to eat mindfully!

  10. 21

    i’m so happy you wrote this post! i know “gluten-free” is such a buzzword lately, with many things that obviously shouldn’t contain gluten being labeled as it (milk. for example!)
    also, i know a lot of people trying to buy gluten free because they think it is healthy- when in reality, it is a lot of different starches and gums, so it has less fiber, protein and nutrients, and the whole wheat/whole grain option would be better!

    i have made a point though lately to buy sprouted bread, and have buying it from a bakery fresh, using local organic flour (instead of Ezekiel). i’ve definitely noticed a differeence in how i feel when eating this vs regular wheat flour!

  11. 23
    Roadrunner says

    Great post and logic, as always, Anne!

  12. 24

    Non-celiac gluten sensitivity… yep that’s me. Add some dairy on top and I start acting drunk (seriously, that’s the amount of brain fog I get in addition to the symptoms you mention!). What’s interesting too is the link between gluten consumption to other autoimmune issues – for example cutting out gluten has made such a big difference for my coaching clients with thyroid problems like Hashimoto’s. Like you said, “Unless gluten makes you feel like crap, don’t worry about avoiding it” — I just encourage people to experiment going a week without it to see how they feel to have a point of reference. I didn’t realize how crap I felt when it was my status quo, but as soon as I cut it out it was DANG I feel like a different person :)

    • 25

      Yes, for Hashimoto’s going gluten free makes a BIG difference. Glad you found what works for you! :)

      • 26

        1) I loved this article. This is pretty much what I relayed to people when I worked at a heath food restaurant. I think gluten-free can help people EXPAND their choices of non-wheat grains, but I don’t like the idea of switching cupcakes with gluten-free cupcakes because you think you’ll drop some pounds

        2) I’ve heard some other people talk about gluten-free diets for Hashimoto’s. My Mother in Law has it, and I was curious as to WHY it makes a difference for some people?

        • 27

          I was just diagnosed with Hashimotos. The first thing I was told was to go gluten free. (Now I’m doing the auto-immune protocol-which is a whole different beast). But just in the few weeks without gluten I’ve noticed a huge difference in my symptoms.

          My understanding is that with Hashimotos most people also have leaky gut. The gluten permeates the intestinal lining and the immune system attacks the invading gluten. Where it gets tricky is the thyroid looks a lot like gluten to a Hashimotos patient’s immune system. And our own immune system starts attacking our thyroid causing all kinds of problems. If we stop eating gluten our antibodies will decrease and stop attacking the thyroid.

          • 28

            Yep, exactly — it has to do with gluten causing an immune response and worsening symptoms.

            • 29

              Oh my gosh – these two comments right here just explained the past 5 years of my life! I didn’t understand why the two went hand in hand! All I knew was my thyroid didn’t work, I was getting chubby and I couldn’t eat gluten anymore. My eyes have been opened! Thank you!!!

  13. 30

    Great post! :)

  14. 31

    Love this! I have felt this way for a long time. I don’t focus so much on what not to have as what to have. I try to eat 50-75% of every meal fruits and veggies. Next I try to pack in nuts, seeds, and healthy carbs, but if I want something a little of something else, I go for it.

  15. 32

    I love this. Thank you for shining a balanced light onto this issue. I think it’s caused a lot of confusion in the past couple years, but this is a really moderate look at it!

  16. 33

    You should take a look at this NPR article and this study:

    They basically say that people that self-reported gluten sensitivity are most likely actually sensitive to fructan, one of the FODMAPs, in the wheat, than to gluten. When my dietitian put me through the FODMAPs diet, it literally changed my life, and I can definitely say that cutting back on gluten has been a huge help (although I’m more convinced now that it’s not the gluten itself that’s causing issues for me, but the type of carbohydrate).

    • 34

      Interesting! I wrote my masters paper on the FODMAPs diet and have coached some clients through it as well. Glad you have found what works for you!

  17. 35

    I just read this article out loud to my husband. We have been navigating this for a month now, and really appreciate your perspective. We agree with the varied, whole foods approach, and know that eliminating certain foods unnecessarily just creates more stress. Thank you!!

  18. 37

    This is great! It’s funny how I didn’t even realize I wasn’t eating any items with gluten in them…or I really did not pay attention. Rather I just looked for whole foods for a carbohydrate source in meals. That worked wonders for me!

  19. 39

    Hi Anne,

    What a great post! I have a friend that is a diagnosed celiac and he feels that gluten-free becoming a fad has been incredibly beneficial. He has so many more options in the grocery store and even out to eat. It’s been fantastic for him so he would recommend it to everyone. I do agree that moderation is key. So many people assume that being gluten-free is healthy, but it can be just as unhealthy as any other way of life. Do you think that part of the problem is people just assuming that gluten free is a more healthy way of eating?

    • 40

      Yes, definitely. People assume gluten free automatically means healthy, but if you’re just replacing processed wheat products with processed gluten free products, it’s not going to be healthier. If you’re eating less processed foods and more whole, real food, however, then yes, being gluten free can certainly be healthier. It just depends! The problem is people don’t understand it.

  20. 41

    Thanks for another great post, Anne! Do you have any recommendations for websites or blogs that deal with gluten free living or celiac/gluten sensitivity?

  21. 43
    Dorota | says

    I’m so glad you’ve wrote this post! It’s balanced like our diet should be. Reading about benefits of gluten-free diet all around the internet was so frustrating. When somebody tells my that he or his friend fill better on gluten-free diet, I tell him the same what you’ve wrote, that his diet is much better now than it was before and it doesn’t have to be related to gluten.
    I also like one study about gluten sensitivity. There were a group of people that claim to have gluten sensitivity but diagnostic tests excluded the celiac disease. People were divided into to groups. After few weeks of gluten-free diet people from both groups felt better. But what they didn’t know, was that the first group was on really gluten-free diet and second one did not. It’s all about psyche.

    • 44

      That reminds me of a study I heard about once that gave people non-alcoholic beer all night but told them it was normal beer. They all started acting wasted. The mind is an interesting thing. :)

  22. 45

    Great post Anne!! Always love your moderation approach, and couldn’t agree more with your thoughts here : )

  23. 47

    Great post!

    What you mentioned about processed wheat struck me. Because my baby is experiencing allergies from my breastmilk, I’ve been put on the most crazy exclusion diet that includes gluten. (Basically, all my meals are now meat and rice) I felt like I was eating more, yet I lost (baby) weight. I also experienced a whole lot less gas and felt less bloated overall. Looking back, it was most likely because I cut out all the processed stuff, most of which included processed wheat!

    Out of all the things I’ve excluded from my diet (dairy, eggs, nuts, etc.), I’ve found being gluten-free to be the most difficult when meal-planning. When I am done breastfeeding, I definitely will run back to a non-restricted diet (I MISS COOKIES AND PIZZA!), but I will think about taking your tips above about going gluten-free during some meals and going towards non-processed in general.

  24. 48

    There is a lot of hype on gluten free, and I think the best thing to do is avoid it, including the ‘gluten free’ substitutes. Having said that, in reality I do love some processed foods and just aim to eat more whole foods overall. That’s what works for me. People should just be aware of what they are eating and if it works for them, great!

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