Against the grain: When not to go on a gluten-free diet

Bonnie Dahan has always been health conscious, but fad diets have never interested her. That all changed after going on a spa retreat based on ayurvedic medicine with friends, when she met a practitioner who nudged her toward one of the most popular diet choices in the United States: going gluten free.

Bonnie, an entrepreneur and author, had been coping with neck pain for years, a problem she attributed to the hours she spent in front of the computer. During the retreat, she told the practitioner about her problem.

“He literally touched my neck and his hand flew off me, and he said, ‘I can’t do anything for you: You have ‘gluten neck,’” Dahan told “He said, ‘All of this tension you’re feeling is inflammation, and if you eliminate gluten from your diet, this will all go away.’”

Gluten, a complex protein that gives bread and cake their sponginess, has been a subject of debate among scientists and popular authors in recent years. Some say gluten is the culprit of so-called foggy brain and bloating. One thing everyone can agree on is for people with celiac disease, consuming gluten causes a life-threatening autoimmune reaction in the body.

Dahan was never diagnosed with celiac disease, nor did her physician say she had non-celiac gluten sensitivity, but she said she jumped at the chance to remedy her ailing neck.

However, after nearly six months of not touching wheat, rye, barley and oats, all Dahan was left with was a grumbling stomach. Despite what Gwyneth Paltrow and some popular literature hailed, she hadn’t even lost any weight.

“To be very candid about it, nothing changed in my neck over the course that I did it. In the beginning, I kind of believed that I’ve got more mental clarity— that would be another result, [the practitioner] said. But you know how it is when someone plants an idea in your head,” Dahan explained.

The gluten-free fad

Dahan is among the 100 million Americans who have reported trying to cut gluten from their diet, according to a 2013 survey by The NPD Group, a global information company.

Why the diet has caught fire among people whose bodies can withstand gluten is partially a product of today’s society, said Stephen Yafa, Bonnie’s husband and the author of the new book “Grain of Truth.”

“We’re in a harried age where everyone’s pushed for time … so this is the perfect diet in some ways,” Stephen told “You don’t have to bring a laundry list of things you can’t eat to Whole Foods.”

Marisa Rosenbaum, who works in public relations in New York City, was turned onto a gluten-free diet after struggling for years with bloating and stomach pain. Rosenbaum sought advice from her gastroenterologist, who conducted a blood test for celiac disease and did an endoscopy.

“He didn’t diagnose me with celiac and couldn’t find anything specifically wrong with me, but I mentioned I’d get overly bloated from eating wheat and bread, so he recommended I try a gluten-free diet,” Rosenbaum told

When she continued to have stomach pain after months of eliminating gluten, she saw another gastroenterologist who again pointed her finger at gluten.

“She said, ‘For some people, it takes longer to work in them,’” said Rosenbaum, who noted the doctor recommended she continue to refrain from consuming gluten.

Rosenbaum said she started to feel healthier after cutting out most refined carbohydrates, but that consuming the occasional gluten-free cupcake would make her feel just as bloated as treats containing gluten.

“It wasn’t making me feel better, and I felt like I was sometimes binge-eating because of it,” Rosenbaum said.

Rosenbaum avoided gluten for two years total. In restaurants, requesting gluten-free fare elicited eye rolls from waitresses, and sometimes, the restrictive diet made it difficult and embarrassing to order food.

“I remember a date I was on— it was a pizza place, and I was like, ‘What do I do?’” Rosenbaum said.

Decoding the diatribe

Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor of religion at James Madison University, was compelled to write about gluten in his new book “The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat” after noticing many of the loud claims other authors have made about gluten have a lot in common with religious rhetoric.

“I saw people promising miraculous transformations,” Levinovitz told “My expertise is in Chinese religion, and I recognized from the religions I’ve studied the same promises being made by Chinese monks.”

Some of those claims have linked consuming gluten not only to bloating but also to chronic conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism. In his book, Levinovitz argues some of these statements in literature can be equated to fear-mongering.

“I’m not a scientist or a doctor, but what I am an expert on is religious rhetoric— and it’s abundantly clear to me [those books] are not written by responsible scientists and doctors.”

But, he said, “For a small minority of the population, it seems to be the case that bloating, diarrhea and [irritable bowel syndrome] may be relieved by going gluten free. And what I’ve been told to suggest is to go to a R.D. or a responsible M.D. gastroenterologist and ask them about their symptoms. It’s possible that going gluten free can help.”

The problem with the gluten-free ‘diet’

In the absence of a formal celiac disease diagnosis, using a process of elimination wherein foods are cut then added back into the diet is the only way to learn whether someone has gluten sensitivity, said Molly Rieger, a registered dietician in New York City.

Rieger and Leah Silberman, also a registered dietician, co-founded Tovita Nutrition, a New York City-based virtual nutrition counseling service that Rosenbaum uses.

A common misconception about gluten-free foods is that they’re healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts, Silberman said.

She said sometimes gluten-free food can have even more sugar, fat and calories than gluten-containing foods, as manufacturers want to make up for lost taste.

Gluten-free fare can also be packed with starches, but “when it comes to a gluten-free diet, there are no immediate health risks” for those without gluten sensitivity, Silberman told “The issue is that gluten-free food can be lower in fiber and be lacking some vitamins and minerals versus their gluten-containing counterparts.”

Under a personalized plan, Rosenbaum has started to add gluten back onto her plate while keeping a detailed food journal. Sprouted bread and quinoa— and occasionally, even pizza— are some of the foods she’s started to eat.

“It’s honestly been working a lot better than the gluten-free diet, and after struggling for so many years, I’m finally finding some relief,” Rosenbaum said. “I still have times I feel bloated, though.”

“The issue is that [a gluten-free diet] obviously works for some people,” Rieger said, “but a lot of people like Marisa don’t have an answer.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates more than 2 million people, or about 1 in 133 people, in the United States have celiac disease. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivity.

“What is this population that has other autoimmune disease and don’t feel well when they have gluten? There is this whole group in the community that needs to be researched,” Alice Bast, founder of NFCA, told

Bast said when she was diagnosed with celiac disease about 22 years ago, she had to order food from Canada and attend support groups, as gluten-free food options were scarce in the U.S. at that point.

While the gluten-free fad has increased those options on store shelves, Bast said, it also has trivialized the concept of gluten in the eyes of those for whom gluten poses a direct health risk.

According to NFCA, there are nearly 300 signs and symptoms of celiac disease.

Symptoms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity include migraine headaches, anemia, abdominal pain and foggy brain, Bast said. “For those of us with celiac disease, it can lead to pneumonia and other autoimmune disease— it is not a weight loss diet.”

As for Dahan, not only did going gluten free not cure her so-called gluten neck— she’s doing yoga to help relieve that ongoing pain— but the dietary change also caused her to make an unnecessary sacrifice.

After she eliminated the complex protein from her diet, her husband began researching gluten and, in the process of writing his book, began baking and snacking on sourdough bread. The wholesome scent of homemade bread filled their kitchen, she said.

“One day, [Stephen] came downstairs,” Bonnie Dahan said. “I turned around and looked at him, and I said, ‘What have you done?’ He was suddenly looking very slim … he said, ‘I think I lost 8 or 10 pounds.’”

“I thought, ‘This isn’t working,’” Bonnie said of her gluten-free diet. ‘”I’ve given up something I love.’”