What does cutting out gluten and dairy do?

Going gluten-free and dairy-free has become a popular dietary choice for many people. Proponents claim that eliminating these foods can provide a variety of health benefits. But what does the science say? Here we’ll explore the evidence behind cutting out gluten and dairy.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. It provides elasticity and helps foods keep their shape. For most people, eating gluten doesn’t cause any issues. However, for those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten triggers an abnormal immune response that damages the small intestine.

Celiac disease affects around 1% of Americans. It’s an autoimmune disorder where any amount of gluten causes damage to the small intestine. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is more common, estimated to impact 6-13% of people. Symptoms include gastrointestinal upset, fatigue and neurological issues when gluten is consumed.

Potential benefits of going gluten-free

For those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, following a strict 100% gluten-free diet is essential to manage symptoms and prevent long-term complications. However, there has been a rise in people without celiac disease choosing to cut out gluten. Proponents believe this provides health advantages like:

  • Fewer digestive issues – Some find eliminating gluten improves bloating, gas, abdominal pain and constipation.
  • Increased energy – Fatigue and tiredness may be reduced on a gluten-free diet for some.
  • Better heart health – There is evidence linking gluten intake to increased inflammation and cholesterol levels.
  • Improved brain function – Early research connects gluten to brain fog and neurological symptoms in those sensitive to it.
  • Weight loss – Although not proven, some report losing weight more easily without gluten.

What does the research say about gluten-free benefits?

While anecdotal reports about gluten-free benefits abound, the scientific evidence is less clear:

  • Digestive issues – Multiple studies show those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity experience less gas, bloating and abdominal pain when removing gluten.
  • Inflammation – Biomarkers of inflammation like CRP can decrease when following a gluten-free diet, especially in those with existing sensitivities.
  • Heart health – Research on the impact of gluten on heart disease risk and cholesterol levels has been inconclusive.
  • Brain function – Some observational studies connect gluten intake to issues like brain fog, anxiety and depression. But few quality clinical trials confirm this.
  • Weight loss – Despite celebrity endorsement, well-designed studies comparing gluten-free and gluten diets show no significant weight loss differences.

For people without celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, cutting out gluten does not appear to provide concrete health benefits. However, those with gluten-related conditions can experience significant improvements in gastrointestinal and other symptoms when removing gluten entirely.

What foods contain gluten?

Aside from the obvious sources like bread, pasta and baked goods, gluten can be found in many everyday foods and products:

Foods That Contain Gluten Gluten-Free Alternatives
Bread, cereal, pasta Rice, quinoa, corn, buckwheat noodles
Beer Cider, wine, spirits, gluten-free beer
Soy sauce Coconut aminos
Salad dressings, sauces Gluten-free condiments
Seitan (wheat gluten) Tofu, tempeh
Oats (unless certified GF) Certified gluten-free oats

It’s important to read labels carefully, as gluten can hide in foods under names like malt, rye, barley and triticale. Contamination is also a concern during processing.

What is dairy?

Dairy products come from the milk of cows, goats and sheep. They include obvious sources like cheese, yogurt, milk, cream and butter. But dairy derivatives like whey, casein, lactose and ghee are also common in processed foods.

Dairy provides important nutrients like protein, calcium, vitamins A & D, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc. However, some people experience issues digesting milk sugars (lactose) or proteins like casein and whey.

Reasons people cut out dairy

Here are some of the main motivations for eliminating dairy products:

  • Lactose intolerance – Around 68% of the global population has difficulty digesting lactose due to low lactase enzyme levels.
  • Milk allergy – An immune reaction to milk proteins like casein affects around 0.5-3% of infants and young children.
  • Avoid hormones – Some wish to avoid growth hormones and other compounds used in dairy cattle farming.
  • Reduce inflammation – Dairy may exacerbate inflammatory conditions like acne, arthritis, asthma and autoimmunity in some people.
  • Weight concerns – While controversial, certain diets like keto and Paleo eliminate dairy for claimed weight loss benefits.
  • Digestive issues – Many report bloating, gas, cramping or diarrhea from consuming dairy products.

Potential benefits of dairy elimination

People who give up dairy cite improvements like:

  • Fewer sinus issues and congestion
  • Less gas and bloating
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Improved skin conditions
  • Easier weight management
  • Better digestion and regularity

Does research support dairy-free benefits?

Let’s examine what controlled studies report about potential advantages of ditching dairy:

  • Weight loss – Despite claims about “dairy fat,” quality studies show little difference in weight by cutting out dairy alone.
  • Inflammation – Some research indicates dairy may worsen inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis in those sensitive. But more study is needed.
  • Congestion – There is limited evidence dairy increases mucus production or worsens sinus congestion except in those with allergy.
  • Skin conditions – Cow’s milk dairy has been linked to acne flares in some individuals, but goat/sheep milk dairy shows less impact.
  • Digestive issues – Those with lactose intolerance experience significant GI symptom relief when eliminating dairy.

Overall the evidence for universal benefits of dairy elimination is weak. But for those with trouble digesting lactose or certain milk proteins, cutting dairy can be advantageous.

Foods to avoid on a dairy-free diet

When omitting dairy, it’s important to watch out for hidden sources on ingredient labels:

Dairy Foods Non-Dairy Alternatives
Milk Almond milk, coconut milk, oat milk
Yogurt Coconut yogurt, almond yogurt
Cheese Nut-based cheeses, coconut cheese
Butter Coconut oil, avocado oil, nut butters
Ice cream Sorbet, coconut milk ice cream
Whey protein Pea protein, hemp protein

It’s also key to read food labels, as milk solids and other dairy derivatives are common additives. With care, dairy products can be avoided.

Replacing key nutrients

Dairy products provide important vitamins and minerals. Without dairy, extra attention is needed to get adequate:

  • Calcium – Leafy greens, calcium-set tofu, almonds, beans, calcium-fortified dairy alternatives.
  • Vitamin D – Fatty fish, eggs, fortified dairy alternatives, supplements.
  • Protein – Meat, fish, eggs, plant proteins like legumes, nuts and quinoa.
  • Vitamin B12 – Meat, eggs, nutritional yeast, fortified foods and supplements.
  • Phosphorus – Meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils.

With planning, these nutrients can be obtained on a dairy-free regimen from plant sources and other foods.

The bottom line

Gluten and dairy free diets are unlikely to provide benefit for most healthy people. However, those with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, lactose intolerance or milk allergies often experience significant symptom relief when removing these foods.

Research does not support universal advantages to going gluten or dairy free. But for people with medical conditions that are triggered by these foods, targeted elimination can be very advantageous.

When removing entire food groups, be sure to maintain a balanced approach. With careful dietary adjustments, a nutritious gluten and dairy-free diet can meet all your nutritional needs.

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