The following is an adapted excerpt from my new book “Eat Dirt: Why Leaky Gut May Be the Root Cause of Your Health Problems and 5 Surprising Steps to Cure It“ (Harper Wave)
The unrelenting surplus of excess sugars; unsprouted, hybridized grains; and other nutritionally bankrupt, processed foods in the standard American diet has simply devastated the gut. Of particular concern is gluten, which evidence increasingly points to as a prime driver of leaky gut syndrome. When foods with gluten are consumed, the body undergoes an inflammatory response and eventually releases the protein — zonulin — that unlocks the epithelial tight junctions and keeps the gates of the gut wide open as long as it circulates in the blood. (1)
The biggest problem is that foods with gluten hide right in plain sight, often going overlooked and even something being promoted as healthy food options. In reality, foods that contain gluten damage the gut and can cause even further problems, particularly for people with gluten sensitivity. So what’s the deal with gluten, what are these foods with gluten we should avoid and what role does zonulin play in gluten’s negative side effects? Let’s find out.
Foods with Gluten Hiding Inside
The amount of gluten found in wheat has doubled in recent years, thanks to those hybridized crops. Gluten is also added as a filler and binding agent to many processed foods, including:
- artificial coffee creamer
- bouillon cubes
- chewing gum
- snack chips
- cold cuts
- fish sticks
- flavored teas
- hot dogs
- imitation seafood
- condiments like ketchup and mayonnaise
- rice mixes
- salad dressing
- soy sauce
- tomato sauces
- vegetable cooking sprays
- ground spices
In addition, you won’t find “gluten” on any of these food ingredient labels, but you will read head-scratching descriptions like:
- dextrin, malt or maltodextrin
- gelatinized starch
- hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP)
- hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)
- modified food starch
- monosodium glutamate (the infamous MSG)
- natural flavorings
- rice malt or rice syrup
- whey protein concentrate
- whey sodium caseinate
I believe gluten is a key reason for our nation’s autoimmune crisis, with clear, documented links to diseases like celiac disease, type 1 diabetes and Crohn’s disease. Gluten has also been associated with more than 55 other diseases and is a major trigger for several thyroid conditions, including Hashimoto’s disease.
A study at the University of Turin in Italy demonstrated a strong link between celiac disease, caused by gluten, and the health of the thyroid. (2) Even if you don’t notice any obvious problems, consuming gluten puts your gut at risk for damage. So why eat it at all? I suggest steering clear of just about all foods with gluten.
Gluten, Zonulin & Autoimmune Disease
Zonulin is a protein that signals the tight junctions to open and close — the only known substance in the body to do so. By controlling zonulin, scientists can open and close the tight junctions almost at will. At this point, we know of two things that can trigger the release of zonulin in the small intestine: exposure to bacteria and exposure to gluten. (3)
Infections in the gut have long been suspected as a cause of the allergic, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases associated with leaky gut. Researchers discovered that when the small intestine is exposed to any infection, it secretes zonulin in response, which then basically opens the door of the tight junctions. In other words, it’s possibly the zonulin, not the bacteria themselves, that directly triggers intestinal permeability.
For millennia, this zonulin response was an essential part of the body’s defense mechanism — it was a way of pushing out the bad bacteria we may encounter, such as salmonella. But our modern world has drastically increased the number of triggers for zonulin, leaving the gates of our gut wide open. What was once a very healthy (and fleeting) immune system response has morphed into a never‐ending cascade, causing our bodies to become chronically inflamed and vulnerable.
Many of the autoimmune conditions linked to leaky gut have a genetic component, yet researchers have determined that less than 10 percent of those with the genes for an autoimmune disease actually develop it. So why do some people with those genes get sick while others don’t? The answer, put simply, is our environment. That’s why the choices we make every day — the food we eat, the products we use, the stress levels in our lives, the pills we take — can make the difference between illness and health. These are all toxic microexposures that can lead to zonulin release. And these are all things, unlike genetics, that are usually within our control.
The two most significant environmental factors when it comes to the release of zonulin are:
- The increase of gluten in our food supply: The hybridization of wheat, as well as its inclusion in almost all processed food products, has vastly increased our consumption of gluten, which creates conditions in the body that encourage a near‐constant release of zonulin.
- The increase in antibiotic usage: The rise of antibiotic medications, hand sanitizers, chemical cleaners, medications and other microbe killers has decimated our microbial diversity. Imbalances in our microbiome have led to increases in the sheer number of bacteria crowding into our small intestine, which continues to trigger zonulin’s gate‐opening mechanism. These are just some of the reasons that antibiotic resistance develops and antibacterial overkill causes harm.
Celiac Disease & Gluten
Celiac is the autoimmune condition with the clearest link to leaky gut. The zonulin released by gluten opens up the tight junctions of the gut lining and lets the gluten out into the bloodstream. Whereas the majority of us might need multiple exposures of gluten before the inflammatory response kicks in, for those with a genetic tendency for celiac disease symptoms, the immune response is triggered immediately and can have severe, even life‐threatening consequences.
But once gluten is removed from the diet, celiac can be resolved quickly. Zonulin decreases, the tight junctions close up and the markers for autoimmunity antibodies start to decrease. With total abstention from all gluten, the autoimmune process shuts off, and the leaky gut — the main focus of celiac’s autoimmune response — can begin to heal completely.
While people with celiac disease experience an extreme immune response, even those with a gluten sensitivity are likely to struggle with leaky gut. A study at the University of Bologna found that people with nonceliac gluten intolerance had almost as much circulating zonulin as those with celiac disease. (4) Even if you don’t have celiac disease, chronic exposure to gluten can harm the gut. That’s why you want to avoid foods with gluten as much as possible.
Foods with Gluten to Avoid
The list of foods with gluten hiding in plain sight is long. The good news is there are ways to avoid them and heal your gut. Following are some of the biggest food culprits and alternatives to foods with gluten.
Canola oil and other vegetable oils widely used in salad dressings and cooking oils are major culprits of gut dysfunction, as they have been shown to eviscerate many of our beneficial microbes. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming hydrogenated oils greatly increases inflammation throughout the entire body. (5) Deli meats are another common offender. They’re loaded with gluten, hydrogenated fats and nitrites, which can lead to digestive troubles for many people. A 2008 study in Nutrition and Cancer demonstrated that people who consume processed meats have a greater risk of cancer, and in 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer categorized processed meat as equivalent to cigarettes and asbestos in terms of cancer risk. (6)
Not even microwave popcorn is as safe as you might assume: A statement released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that microwave popcorn contains perfluorooctanoic acid, a synthetic chemical found in nonstick pans that’s been linked to cancer and hormone disruption. Very few people are aware of how the foods they eat affect their gut or create a constant tug‐of‐war between harmful bacteria and good bacteria inside their digestive tracts. We need to become more mindful that the foods of the modern world — even many of the ones we’ve long considered to be “healthy” — are making us sick.
Wheat is the most commonly used grain and the predominant ingredient in everything from breakfast cereal to bagels to pasta, pizza and desserts. While it’s true that people have been baking and cooking with wheat for centuries, today’s wheat does not resemble the wheat of our ancestors. For the last 50 years, modern wheat has been hybridized, crossbred with other grains and species to increase yields, and sprayed with massive amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. (The USDA Pesticide Data Program found traces of 16 pesticides on wheat our during a 2004 study.) (7) There’s been another cost to this hybridization process: fewer nutrients, more weight‐producing carbohydrates, and more gluten, phytic acid and amylopectin. In my opinion, our wheat consumption is the primary culprit of our country’s obesity epidemic.
Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, spelt and barley, is derived from the Latin word for “glue,” which makes sense because this sticky, gooey protein acts like an adhesive to hold foods together. Gluten in a flour‐and‐water mixture gives dough its elastic qualities and allows bread to rise during the baking process. Yet we lack the specific digestive enzymes to fully break down and absorb gluten. Large blocks of undigested protein find their way into the small intestine, where they slow the absorption of other valuable nutrients.
Our immune systems view gluten as foreign bacteria and react en masse, causing collateral damage to the intestinal wall in the process, creating the perfect conditions for zonulin to unlock the wall’s tight junctions. As you learned earlier, those gluten molecules sail right through the intestine, priming us for a variety of diseases and digestive troubles.
Phytic acid is considered an “antinutrient” — a naturally occurring substance found in plant foods that blocks the absorption or proper functioning of other nutrients in the body. This mineral binder prevents our bodies from absorbing key bone‐building nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc, which creates nutrient deficiencies and reduces the digestibility of starches, proteins and fats. It can be found on the bran of all grains as well as the outer coating of seeds and nuts, and is an enzyme inhibitor. When grains are unsprouted and unfermented, the phytic acid can irritate the intestines and cause leaky gut.
Grains also contain amylopectin, which has been called a “super carbohydrate” for its ability to increase blood sugar faster than other carbohydrates. (In this case, “super” is not a good thing.) The molecular structure of amylopectin causes this starch to be more easily digested than other complex sugars, which raises blood sugar levels faster than you can say, “Sure, I’ll have a sandwich.”
In a study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, participants were given a diet that was 70 percent amylopectin or 70 percent amylose, a different but healthier “resistant” starch that isn’t as quickly digested as amylopectin. Because it takes longer to break down, amylose is fermented by bacteria in the large intestine similar to how some types of fiber are broken down — a process that limits spikes in blood sugar levels, lowers cholesterol and feeds the beneficial bacteria in the colon. (8)
Foods rich in amylose tend to have a low glycemic index: fruits, vegetables, salads and organic whole‐grain products. In contrast, foods with amylopectin have a high glycemic index: white breads, starchy potatoes and sugary desserts. The study found that those on the amylopectin diet had high glucose and insulin responses after a meal, which led to fat storage on the body, specifically in the abdominal area, otherwise known as belly fat. Stick with the amylose!
A lot of people have a hard time giving up breads and baked goods, but the good news is you don’t have to abstain from these foods with gluten forever just because you’re eliminating gluten from your diet. The key is to find a replacement for wheat flour. (Take note: I’m not saying it’s a good idea to just eat gluten‐free doughnuts. Sugary junk food is sugary junk food, gluten or no gluten!) Two gluten-free flours that I like and recommend to my patients are coconut and almond flour.
Most people will do great with either of these flours, but for those with severe leaky gut, coconut flour is the best. I love the texture of coconut flour, which you can find in any natural grocery store. We enjoy making coconut flour blueberry muffins, coconut flour crepes, coconut flour chocolate chip cookies … you name it, you can make it with coconut flour.
Coconut flour is high in fiber, protein and healthy fats. I also like that coconut flour scores low on the glycemic index and has more fiber and fewer carbohydrates than wheat flour. Made from ground and dried coconut meat, coconut flour isn’t like the household “flour” you grew up with, but it sure is healthier. A study in the Journal of Medicinal Food showed that coconut flour’s high nutrient density can help lower bad LDL cholesterol levels in those with raised cholesterol levels. (9)
If the texture of coconut flour isn’t to your liking, you can try almond flour. Sometimes I’ll use a combination of the two. Almond flour is high in protein, fiber and minerals and is best sprouted. Even though almond flour is healthy, I don’t recommend consuming more than a quarter cup total in a sitting because almond flour can be hard to digest in large amounts. What both coconut our and almond our offer is great versatility in recipes with the bonus of healthy nutrients and filling fats.
When looking for gluten‐free grains, sprouted ancient grain flours (such as sprouted buckwheat, sorghum, amaranth, quinoa or millet flour) can also be a good option for those with mild to moderate leaky gut. Sprouted corn, sprouted gluten-free oats and sprouted rice our are other possible substitutes for baking.
Sprouting grains also makes them easier to digest for people with gluten sensitivities. In a study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, researchers sprouted wheat kernels for up to one week while analyzing them at different stages to observe the changes in gluten concentrations and nutrient levels. (10) They found that sprouting the wheat decreased the gluten proteins substantially, while increasing dietary fiber by 50 percent. When choosing bread, look for the term “sprouted” on the label.
I don’t eat bread very often, but when I do, I like Ezekiel bread, which is extremely high in fiber. Organic sourdough breads can be healthy and nutritious as well.
Foods with Gluten Takeaways
Foods with gluten are hiding in plain sight, and consuming too many can lead to a plethora of autoimmune disorders, especially leaky gut syndrome. That’s why you want to avoid them!
While avoiding foods with gluten may seem like a daunting task, it’s more than doable. However, you must make sure to read all labels and opt for sprouted grains and gluten-free options instead of traditional wheat products. And, of course, you should avoid processed foods that are loaded with gluten and many other unhealthy, toxic ingredients, and instead opt for healthier, organic, whole foods over foods with gluten hiding below the surface.