Why You Should Eat Gluten Free On A Low Carb Keto Diet
If you’re wondering what removing gluten could do for you or anyone else, whether you have a sensitivity, allergy, celiac disease, or not, this post is definitely for you. Here, I detail my health changes going gluten free, from the trivial to the staggeringly remarkable. And maybe you’ll learn why you should eat gluten free on a low carb keto diet.
With the ketogenic diet, going gluten free will very likely be one of the first steps you take, along with removing all other grains. Your experiences and health history might not mirror mine exactly, but I promise you’ll learn something. And if you decide to go gluten free, I have some advice for you.
First though, I need to tell you that the reason I give you the following advice is because you might doubt yourself down the road, or receive judgy comments from people who think you’re one of those “snowflakes” making up fake medical conditions. (Drives me nuts. Mind your own business!)
This is truly “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (great book, by the way!!). As omnivores, we’re able to eat anything, so what should we eat? Should we be able to eat anything we want? Some people seem to think so. That’s definitely a post for another day!
Here’s My Advice:
You’re going to make two lists.
Before you go gluten free, make the first list. You’ll write down every single health issue that you have right now, big or small. Write down how frequently you get sick or have a sinus infection or other infections. Anything recurring or chronic. It’s okay if you don’t get it all. I realized I forgot about some problems until they got better simply because I had gotten used to adapting around them! Just write down everything you can think of right now.
After you quit gluten, make a second list. On the second list, record everything that starts to improve (or just start checking them off the first list!). I’ll bet you see some awesome improvements, even if you didn’t think you were gluten sensitive! And when people come around asking why you’re going gluten free when you haven’t tested positive for celiac disease or a wheat allergy, you can refer to your list.
Grab your FREE Keto Foods Cabinet Cheatsheet for easy reference!
And remember, it’s your health, not theirs. You don’t need to answer to anyone if you don’t want to! If you feel like telling people the Flying Spaghetti Monster has told you to stop eating gluten products, that’s good enough! (And it sort of makes sense, spaghetti being wheat and all.) These lists are definitely more for you than anyone else.
My health improvements list is toward the end of this post, if you’re dying to know and want to skip down there. I had no idea it would change my life and my health so much! Some of the changes are logical, but others seem completely inexplicable. All I was trying to do was reduce my inflammation and not lose an eye, but I got so much more than I expected!
If you like stories, this post is also for you. Now I’ll detail my experiences with gluten and going gluten free. Grab a bulletproof hot cocoa and some veggies and dip or strawberries and cream and let’s settle in for a nice long story.
Also, while I detail my own personal experiences here, I don’t explain exactly why these improvements occurred. If you go to my Wheat Belly book review, you can read more about how wheat affects our bodies and some really good reasons to start omitting it from our diets. I am a firm believer that we should know the reasons why we should make changes. Knowledge is power.
It’s My Glutenfreeversary!
(You’ve read my posts before, you know I make up words. Let’s keep moving.)
I’ve been gluten free for a whole year now. Crazy! I thought it would be harder than it has been. I have to be honest, it was not very hard at all. Well, I say that, but if you asked me a week after I quit gluten, let’s just say I wouldn’t have been able to stop and answer you for all the rushing around looking for gluten free foods and recipe adapting I was doing. It was a shock back then.
And now? After one year,it feels like it’s always been this way. However, removing gluten from my diet was a big deal in the beginning. I haven’t ever been a huge bread fan, but I did love to make homemade na’an with my Indian meals or have a cone with my ice cream from time to time. (Hmmm, future keto recipes for the blog??)
I’ve always been a baker. I constantly had people asking for my recipes. My mom is an amazing cook and baker. My grandmother is too, and she even made and decorated our beautiful wedding cake. You’ll hear me mention my mother and grandmother many times on Keen for Keto. My paternal grandfather was a military cook. It has always just felt like part of my DNA to bake.
I know many of you feel the same about your families and your DNA. It almost feels wrong to change this solid family tradition of baking! But I think we can look at it differently if we try. My grandmother and mother are also avid gardeners. Not only that, but my family embraces improvement and expanding ourselves. For me, I’m choosing to focus on those “traditions” and bettering myself because of it.
I’m going to start from what I thought was the beginning, and then backtrack to explain how gluten and wheat have actually been affecting me longer than I thought.
Starting with my most extreme symptom: iritis.
Why You Should Eat Gluten Free on a Low Carb Keto Diet
The Iritis Diagnosis
Five years ago, I started waking up around 3 am with a sharp pain in my left eye. Cursed with the stoicism that I am, I’m not one to overreact with health symptoms. There are studies that say a huge percentage of symptoms that people go to the doctor for clear up on their own without treatment. Knowing this (and having a spouse with a medical background who, I’m sure, wouldn’t advise me going to the ER if I had blood spurting from my eyes), I normally stick it out and see if things get worse.
After taking ibuprofen the first few times and going back to sleep when the pain subsided, I realized this issue was not going away. I consider eyes pretty important, pragmatic, useful organs, so I went to see an optometrist.
The optometrist blinded me with his lights and dried out my eyes with his air puffs, and gave me some yellow drops that made me super sensitive to the light. Don’t worry, they gave me some stylish disposable sunglasses to wear home so I could drive safely. You know, the kind that roll up. Super duper fashionable.
He looked for certain cells in my eyes and declared he saw some, diagnosed me with iritis, gave me a prescription for steroid drops, explained the application schedule, and told me I should come back in three weeks.
I dutifully followed his orders and felt some relief with the drops. When the optometrist inspected my eyes again, he said he didn’t see anymore “cells” and to call him if symptoms came back. I saw him a few more times when the symptoms didn’t clear up completely.
Now is probably a good time to explain iritis. Iritis is one of those sub-symptoms that tags along with several diseases, so you may never find out what the root cause or root disease of your iritis is until you get diagnosed with the root disease. Lucky me! Iritis is a type of uveitis, which is inflammation of the uvea. The uvea is made up of three parts: the ciliary body, the choroid, and the iris (which is the color around your pupil). Iritis is the type of uveitis that affects the iris. So the green of my eyes was inflamed.
For a few years, I tried not to use the steroid drops and opted instead to search for a possible nutritional connection. I thought I found it in milk, sugar, or wheat. After I decreased these things, my iritis would painfully flare up occasionally, but I felt like I had it mostly under control. The only one I’ve really committed to is gluten removal.
“Gluten Or Your Eye”
During this time, I was also experiencing some embarrassing recurring acne and dry skin patches on my chin area and couldn’t figure out where they were coming from. Now I recognize these and many other health issues that I brushed under the rug as well (see the list below). It’s funny how much we categorize as just part of getting older, when we have so much more control than we think! As my RN friend likes to say, “Age is not a disease!”
It was about this same time that I got a new primary care doctor. When I explained my symptoms to her, she was confident that it was an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases are basically inflammatory diseases. Psoriasis, an autoimmune disease affecting skin, joints, and nails, has popped up in close relatives, so between the family history, my iris inflammation, and my acne, she thought it would be psoriasis. Part of her reasoning was the acne I described that started showing up around my chin area about the same time that the iritis showed up. I had no joint pain.
She also surprised me by recommending that I try cutting gluten out of my diet and see if that helped. She explained that gluten is especially inflammatory for a lot of people with autoimmune diseases (or people in general, even without a disease). She told me I could cut gluten out or lose my eye.
No brainer. I want to see.
(You’re not bored yet, are you? I happen to find other people’s medical histories fascinating–it’s like clues to solving a mystery! Maybe you’ll have insights or stories for me, too. If you do, comment below this post!)
The Blood Panel: Cholesterol Results
At that same appointment, my new doctor did a routine blood panel. When the nurse called me at home to give me my results, I fully expected a dull “everything is normal” report that I normally get. I was shocked to hear that my cholesterol was high. Not only was it high, but the nurse informed me that my doctor had a prescription for me for a statin drug and wanted me to start taking it immediately!
My jaw was on the floor, guys. Not just from the shock of the newly high cholesterol levels, but because my NEW doctor, whom I had seen ONCE and who had tested my blood ONCE was trying to put me on a life-altering drug.
If you’ve ever been in a situation where a professional in a field is telling you that you need something or suffer the consequences, you know how I was feeling. It’s like if an expert mechanic pops open the hood, looks inside for ten seconds and is telling the owner, who has no knowledge of motor vehicles, “Looks like your car is about to die. You’re going to need a new transmission.” Um, excuse me? Well, I guess you’re the expert. It’s really hard to process when you’re not the expert and a huge decision is on the line.
I did my preliminary research (meaning, I googled it) and found that statins help some people, and don’t help others. They make some peoples’ cholesterol go up, while making others’ go down (and gave them a long list of crazy awful symptoms). I didn’t feel like I could get a solid answer on whether it would work out for me, and I also knew from my medical husband that once on statins your doctor will advise you to stay on them your entire life. I wasn’t making this commitment without being educated about what statins are exactly, what they would do, and what my other options were.
When I made an appointment to see my doctor again, I wanted to understand exactly why she recommended what I thought was such a knee-jerk dramatic treatment for my outlier test results.
Please Let Me Try Keto, Doc!
At my next appointment, my doctor told me it was routine for her to prescribe statins when total cholesterol was at or above 230 mg/dl. Mine was 233. My HDL was 51 and my LDL was 161. My triglycerides were 107.
For reference, for women, total cholesterol is recommended to be less than 200 mg/dl, HDL greater than 50 mg/dl, LDL less than 100 mg/dl, and triglycerides less than 150 mg/dl.
|Measurements in mg/dl||Total cholesterol||HDL||LDL||Triglycerides|
I asked my doctor if I could improve my numbers through diet or other lifestyle changes. I was desperate to not have to take a drug!
My doctor was very against trying to improve my cholesterol through diet. She said even some of her skeleton-thin marathon-runner patients have high cholesterol and there’s nothing they can do about it. It’s purely genetics, she said.
I asked specifically about the keto diet (I had just heard of it from reading Wheat Belly and Grain Brain), and she fought the urge to eyeroll. She seemed to know a little about the history of the diet and even told me some things I didn’t know. But she also seemed to think it all belonged in the past or should only be used for specific medical conditions (not mine).
When I explained further that I’d be eating things like spinach salad with homemade olive oil dressing, she got a puzzled look on her face, as though she hadn’t thought that could be keto. It amazes me that even some doctors think keto is always all about cream cheese and bacon and fail to consider healthy fats and vegetables! This was also before I realized keto was becoming a huge weight loss trend diet alongside its cleaner, healing version, and now I understand her confusion a bit more.
The doctor was absolutely against using food to change cholesterol and was convinced that only a statin could help me. Sigh.
How could the same doctor who believed in diet for reducing inflammation caused by a possible autoimmune disease, not also believe in diet for reducing cholesterol? (Ironically, I now understand that the heightened presence of cholesterol just means inflammation is being dealt with somewhere in the body! I just needed to find the cause of my inflammation, not eliminate the “firefighters” that were trying to put out my fire!) She was willing, however, to give me 6 months to see if diet could help and if it didn’t, she wanted me on a statin immediately.
Statins are no joke, people. I’m lucky enough to have a wealth of drug knowledge in my RN/health coach/medical consultant husband, so of course I asked him what he thought and he was skeptical, too. He completely validated my reaction to the news from my doctor.
When he explained what statins can do to a body long term, I knew I just couldn’t do it based on one measly test. It makes me SO sad to know how many people just trust and accept the news from their doctors and put their bodies through heck instead of making lasting changes that ultimately make their lives better! I feel like doctors should know better!
Advocating For Ourselves
Don’t get me wrong–I know every doctor in America probably has more medical knowledge than I do. But I do believe that we are our own advocates and our families’ advocates. Doctors often get busy or get into habits or just aren’t perfect, and they mess up, just like everyone else. And it takes time for established medical norms to change, too.
If you think about it, there must be so many peer-reviewed quality studies done before a change is accepted at the research level. Then it has to trickle through to the medical schools and medical associations. Then to the textbook people, publishers, and professors. These things take time. Not only that, but it’s hard for people to change their minds when what they’re changing their minds about is something on which they’re considered to be an authority and they might possibly have to retract some things they’ve said. And then of course, it can take even longer for the public to change their minds.
Side story (you guys know I love tangents):
When my daughter was born, she failed her hearing test. She failed it again at 3 months. Her pediatrician wanted to put tubes in her ears. She was scheduled at the ripe old age of 4 months for a surgery that included anesthesia for her tiny body. Sure, it’s a minor outpatient operation, and all you NICU parents are probably rolling your eyes at my wimpy reaction. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t right for my daughter.
I cancelled the surgery. A week later, my daughter had an appointment with the audiologist and passed her hearing test with flying colors. The audiologist explained that she probably just had fluid in her ears from the birth that was taking time working its way out.
Be your own advocate and listen to your intuition!
Doctors can’t possibly have all of the facts. We may not all have the years of training and experience they have, but they haven’t lived in our bodies or watched our children grow or our parents suffer. The patient-doctor relationship should be a partnership, and in the end our intuition and determination to ask questions and press for answers will take us far.
Don’t forget to grab your FREE Keto Foods Cabinet Cheatsheet!
Third Opinion, Third Diagnosis
When I finally changed to a different optometrist, the new optometrist looked for the same symptoms of iritis and said he didn’t see anything. He was so polite and restrained about not calling out my former optometrist, but instead simply said he believed it was dry eye. With dry eye, it gets worse during the winter, when people are indoors with their heat blaring, drying up the moisture in the air. He suggested a simple saline eye drop.
I’m really curious to see if my symptoms of iritis/dry eye get worse this fall as the weather changes and our house furnace fan is running. I never noticed whether the pain was worse in a certain season, but I do know that cutting gluten out has reduced the pain by about 75% and that was last September, right as the weather was getting cooler. We’ll see. I’ll be sure to update you guys.
A few months into cutting gluten out of my diet, I wanted to understand how gluten could affect me so much. I was slowly starting to improve in so many unexpected areas. So I started with reading Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist. I began to understand that by simply cutting wheat out of my diet–something I was doing for my eye, not my cholesterol–I could lower my cholesterol! And not only that, but our understanding of cholesterol is completely misguided.
For those 6 months between the initial cholesterol test and the second one, the only dietary change I made was to quit gluten. I didn’t exercise more than normal, which is about 2-4 times a week for about 20-30 minutes each, sometimes more if I can get it. My results? My HDL was 51 (no change), my LDL was 124, and my total cholesterol was 197. My doctor told me she wouldn’t recommend a statin for me anymore. Mmmhmm.
Complete List of Unexpected Ways My Health Improved When I Went Gluten Free
The amazing part about cutting gluten out of my diet wasn’t just that it actually helped my worst problems. I have a whole list of things that got better or just disappeared after I stopped consuming gluten. It was so exciting to me to see these random little changes, that I started documenting them. Some of these are little things, the kind that I figured people just started to accumulate as they got older, because, well, aging. Others are pretty huge.
- A muscle twitch that occurred several times a month by my left eyebrow. This was minor, but so annoying. Like getting the hiccups and not knowing how to get rid of them. Stopped entirely after removing gluten from my diet.
- Itchy skin on my back by my right shoulder. Same spot every time. Completely stopped itching.
- Lower back and left shoulder pain. This change was mind-boggling to me! This is a pain that started before I had any kids and I had come to accept it as part of my life. Exercise and yoga helped a bit, but it always came back. I thought I just didn’t exercise enough or the right way. The back and shoulder pain went away a few weeks after cutting gluten out, and has NOT come back! I can’t tell you what a blessing that has been!
- Left arm numbness. This one was scary to me, because I know it can be a symptom of heart attack. I was constantly rubbing my arm to try to get the feeling back, but it was only getting worse. My arm hasn’t been numb again since a few weeks after stopping gluten.
- Cholesterol normalized. Yes! The biggest change I made was to remove gluten from my diet, and my total cholesterol went from 233 to 197. This was only 6 months in, and shortly after the Christmas goodie season. No statins for me!! (I did make a few other minor changes, but I’m not sure how much they contributed to my test results here. Three days before the second test, I began taking fish oil, turmeric, and vitamin D supplements. I honestly couldn’t tell you if it affected me quickly enough to be the cause of the change. Judging by all the other changes the gluten removal made, I’m apt to attribute it to the gluten removal. But, you know, full disclosure, authenticity, honesty, scientific integrity–all that.)
- Face acne lessened. I still have flare-ups, even though the acne is not a constant anymore. I’m very anxious to see what happens as I reduce sugar on keto. I’ve gone sugar free before and it’s magical, too. (Sugar free post coming soon!!)
- Sleeplessness. I used to have bouts of insomnia, where I just couldn’t turn my brain off and relax at night. It was so frustrating to not be able to fall asleep till 11 or 12, and then have to get up with the baby at 2 am anyway! This might happen once every 3 months now. I have no trouble falling asleep.
- Arms falling asleep at night. This was another thing that affected my sleep. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with both arms dead asleep. I’d have to rub them and flop them around till the blood began circulating again and wait for the tingling to stop so I could fall back asleep. Stopped completely!!
- Weight loss. I didn’t have much weight to lose to begin with. I wanted to lose about 15 pounds, but my doctor told me I didn’t need to. I lost 10 pounds in the first month and have kept it off.
- Leg pain from varicose veins. This started up with my pregnancies and didn’t go away after my 3rd. I was to the point that I thought the pain was going to be with me the rest of my life. It’s also a family trait, so I sort of gave in to the fact that it was an issue I’d always have. Lots of my evenings were spent laying on my back on the couch with my legs propped up, rubbing them to get the pain and aching to stop so I could fall asleep. I truly cannot believe this pain is completely gone.
- Night sweats. I stopped waking up in the middle of the night to find my neck and chest soaked in sweat.
- Heels stopped bleeding. My skin has always been pretty dry, but in the few years before stopping gluten, my heels would get so dry that they would crack and bleed. It was painful to walk and embarrassing to wear sandals. My heels still get hairline cracks, but I get less now and they haven’t bled since I cut gluten out.
- Canker sores disappeared. I had been suffering from canker sores 5-6 times a year since adolescence, so this was huge for me. The canker sores would stick around for a week, sometimes two, and were so painful. I still can’t believe I haven’t had a single canker sore since stopping gluten.
- Lessening of common cold occurrences. This was a shocker to me. As a child, I was almost never sick. I was one of the kids who got the perfect attendance certificate at school almost every year. But in the last few years, I had started getting sick more and more often, and each time the colds were worse.
By the time I saw my doctor, I was getting sick 1-2 times a month for about a year. I would start to cry each time I felt symptoms come on, because I just didn’t think I could handle another bad cold. I have four kids to take care of! It was incredibly wearing. I felt helpless. I tried everything from downing enough raw garlic to ward off vampires to exercising like I was a maniac. The colds still came, and worse each time. In the year before I stopped gluten, I even started getting sinus infections with every cold, which I had never ever had before. I didn’t even know it was a sinus infection the first time. It was so painful.
I got sick one last time about two weeks after stopping gluten. Since then, there have been a few times that I thought I might be getting sick, but the symptoms went away after a day. The first few times I even cancelled events, bracing myself for a bad cold that just never came! It’s been ten months now, and I’ve only been sick that one time.
Guys. I’m a mom to FOUR kids from a toddler to a preteen. You know they’ve been sick and bringing germs home from school. And my husband has slept next to me and given me kisses all these months and has had walking pneumonia and the flu (at the same time, poor guy!) and severe strep throat during this time, both of which caused him to be bedridden, not to mention regular colds, while I have been completely unaffected! I don’t even know how to explain this one (if you can, I’m all ears!). All I know is that my body changed drastically after I removed gluten and I am so happy with my healing!
I honestly would never have predicted all of this. I would have stopped gluten much much sooner if I knew I could have improved this much.
Backtracking: The Molar Pregnancy
Time for the tissues. I want to go back and talk about how gluten may have affected me before my iritis diagnosis. Specifically, in pregnancy.
Morning sickness has been awful for me in each and all of my five pregnancies. I go off almost all carbs in the first trimester, especially wheat, because I just can’t function at all during the first four months with carbs and wheat. It comes right back up. Now that I know how gluten sensitive my body is, I wish I’d been even stricter about it and maybe even done keto starting a few months prior to conceiving! I naively ate my saltines and ginger ale (with no real ginger in it!), and wondered why this old remedy didn’t work for me.
Wheat may have affected me the most during my second pregnancy. You’ll notice that earlier I said five pregnancies, four kids. My second pregnancy ended up being a devastating complete molar pregnancy, or what’s called gestational trophoblastic disease.
In very simple terms, during a complete molar pregnancy, an abnormal egg with no chromosomes is put out and one or two sperm fertilize the egg anyway. It begins to grow and multiply, but never forms a baby. What forms is a mass of cells with the appearance of a cluster of grapes called a hydatidiform mole that can eventually turn into a cancer called choriocarcinoma and spread throughout the body, killing the mother. My doctor rushed me into surgery the next day for a dilation and curettage to remove the cells.
In one day I went from thinking I was giving my son a sibling and we’d all be holding a sweet chubby cherub in 6 more months, to having my insides scraped out and crying endlessly with the abrupt hormone changes and emotional shock. What was growing inside my uterus for three months and causing me all the normal pregnancy symptoms, including morning sickness, was not a baby.
Almost as devastating was the fact that I really, truly thought I was in tip-top shape. I exercised regularly, tried to eat right, spent time outdoors, and had a happy life. It was intellectual torture to not know what caused the molar pregnancy or how to prevent it.
Working Through Grief to Find the Cause
After grieving from the molar pregnancy, I went to work. I searched and read and studied. I wanted to figure out why this happened to me so it wouldn’t happen again. We had one child and knew we wanted more. Once you have any type of molar pregnancy, it’s more likely that it will occur again. I did not want to go through this trauma again.
What I found was interesting. There is no known cause. That wasn’t too surprising. Lots of medical condition causes are still mysteries. But the one answer I could find is that molar pregnancies are thought to be caused by a nutritional deficiency. I had no clue what I could be deficient in. I always thought I was so healthy!
It wasn’t till much much later, during my first year of no gluten, I was reading up on wheat and I found out that gluten sensitivity can cause nutritional deficiencies. It interferes with the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients. So even if I’d been eating exactly what I was supposed to eat, my body probably wasn’t able to take what it needed from the food I was eating!
Now, I don’t know if this is what caused my molar pregnancy or if I’ll ever know for sure. This is an individual anecdotal case and speculation. But the dots are there waiting to be connected. I’ll always wonder.
Store-bought mayonnaise has sugar and unhealthy vegetable fats. Try this easy 2-Minute
Keto Olive Oil Mayonnaise instead!
In some of my social circles, wheat has been elevated to a sacred status. It’s even spoken of in scripture. With phrases in nutritional literature such as “wholesome whole grains,” who wouldn’t feel virtuous biting down on their turkey and swiss on whole wheat? Unfortunately, if you’ve read my Wheat Belly post, you understand the wheat of today is not at all the same as in Biblical times. (If you guessed GMOs, you’re partially right!)
My parents have a grain mill. As soon as we could afford it, my husband and I bought one. We used to grind our own wheat berries and make our own bread with a bread machine. Many of my friends do this still. We even added vital wheat gluten. Really. It’s astonishing to think about it now! We had buckets and buckets of organic, pesticide-free, locally grown wheat berries (that’s what the grains are called), thinking it was healthier to grind our flour fresh and eat it whole, unprocessed. We truly believed we were helping our bodies.
Looking for a way to get more healthy omega 3’s? Try these ketogenic Greek Tuna Cakes
The Effects of Change
The change to no gluten hasn’t been easy. Let me rephrase that. It hasn’t been easy for my family. My personal gains have been so significant that it’s not even a sacrifice to me. I just have to think about my varicose veins or my never-ending colds to be grateful for my gluten-free foods!
However, my husband has asked me more than once why I’m still going gluten free after my autoimmune disease test came back negative. I patiently recite my list of improvements (see above), and he agrees it’s better this way.
My kids have noticed that I don’t bake with wheat flour and it’s been an adjustment for them. But I’ve noticed how they change when they get a burger or donut when we’re out. Especially their behavior and moods. If I can get them to change over completely, I believe we’ll see sustained improvements.
As for me, I will never judge anyone for quitting gluten. For one thing, it’s none of my business, whether you have an allergy, a disease, or not. And now that I’ve experienced all the completely unexpected results of my own gluten removal, I can only recommend it.
I can’t go back. I would be insane to start eating wheat again after all these amazing changes. My body is healing and it feels so good!
I hope you find similar health improvements however you choose to live. Happy healing to you!