Hot dog eating contests. The Biggest Loser. “Supersize it.” When it comes to food (and dieting), Americans are known for their penchant for extremes. To some, gluten- and dairy-free diets fit this bill, since these diets require such a high level of both commitment and sacrifice to achieve their touted benefits. Yet gluten-free and dairy-free diets aren’t just torture methods for losing weight; in reality, they represent extremely beneficial lifestyles for people who have serious, legitimate health concerns like autism, autoimmune diseases, and gastrointestinal issues, among others.
While many people go gluten-free simply to look good or achieve better health, for others, a gluten-free diet is life-sustaining. Gluten is a protein in wheat, barley, and rye that, although naturally-occurring in these grains, is not compatible with the human immune system; because it is not recognized by the immune system, gluten can cause severe damage to the intestines. In reality, all humans have a gluten sensitivity because the human body wasn’t made to consume this protein, yet the evolution of the modern diet has squelched the effects of this sensitivity in many cases. However, by consuming gluten, people with heightened gluten sensitivity experience often permanent damage to their intestines, resulting in the inability of the body to properly absorb nutrients from food.
Those suffering from Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and other inflammatory diseases or autoimmune disorders can benefit from removing gluten from their diets. By following a gluten-free diet, the risk of damaging the intestines decreases, improving the body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients from other foods. Eliminating gluten consumption also decreases inflammation in the digestive tract, the joints, and the skin, leading to improved health and comfort.
Similarly, a dairy-free diet is more than a weight-loss or look-good strategy. This kind of diet improves the health and quality of life for many people who suffer from gastrointestinal diseases, digestion issues, inflammatory diseases, and milk allergies and sensitivities. While some of these issues, such as acne or unclear skin, may seem minor, others, like a milk allergy, can be life-threatening, making the switch to non-dairy foods and drinks imperative.
Although milk and dairy allergies are most common in infants and young children, many adults suffer from these conditions, or develop them later in life. In fact, about 70 percent of the world’s population suffers from some type of lactose intolerance but, again, due to the nature of the modern diet, our bodies have adapted to the consumption of dairy. For many, the discomfort caused by eating cheese or ice cream has become a normal part of consuming those foods. But the human body wasn’t designed to digest lactose after weaning; in fact, once a baby stops consuming its mother’s breast milk, its body slowly stops producing lactase, the enzyme that assists with digesting lactose. This makes a dairy-free diet not only sensible, but healthy, too.
Besides improving digestive issues and gastrointestinal diseases triggered by dairy, a dairy-free diet has been clinically shown to improve other medical concerns as well. Multiple clinical studies have revealed the link between dairy consumption and hormonal cancers like ovarian and prostate cancer, while further research suggests dairy as a trigger for migraines, rashes and skin conditions, sinus problems, chronic infections, arthritis pain and inflammation, and narcolepsy.
Together, the elimination of gluten and of casein, an allergy-inducing protein found in dairy, may also improve the social and cognitive functioning of people suffering from autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Because those with ASD may process proteins and peptides in gluten and casein differently from people without ASD, they may be at higher risk of reactions to these proteins, which could in turn lead to an exacerbation of autistic symptoms. Ultimately, the elimination of foods containing gluten and casein have been shown to lead to improved behavior and speech for children and adults with autism.
While a gluten-free and dairy-free diet may be essential for people with specific medical concerns, everyone can benefit from lowering or eliminating the amount of gluten and dairy that they consume daily. You don’t have to cut gluten or dairy completely from your diet; even eating less of these proteins has been shown to brighten moods, clear skin, improve mental clarity, and help with weight loss. As with any diet, it’s important to speak with your doctor or other medical professional about your decision to cut anything from your diet to ensure it’s the healthiest decision for you and your needs.