Four Reasons Not To Cheat on Your Gluten-Free Diet

Considering Dabbling in Gluten-Filled Foods? Here Are the Risks

Don't do it!. Chris Ryan/OJO Images/Getty Images

It's happened to most of us with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity at one time or another — we'll be sitting quietly somewhere as those around us chow down on yummy-looking yet gluten-filled treats, and we'll think: Maybe one bite won't hurt.

So many times, this will happen because there's not much around at that moment for someone on the gluten-free diet to eat. Maybe it's a green salad sans dressing or the ubiquitous baked potato for you, but delicious full-gluten Italian food for your friends.

Or maybe it's a huge frosting-covered birthday cake for someone in your family, but only a small package of stale gluten-free cookies for you.

Whatever it is, the temptation to cheat on the gluten-free diet is high ... oh, so high. Yes, I know: their food looks so good, and what harm could it do, just this once?

But trust me, cheating would be a major mistake. Here are four excellent reasons why:

1. You risk major health complications by cheating. If you have celiac disease, every time you consume gluten — even just a bite of that birthday cake — you're damaging your small intestine. That raises your risk for ongoing villous atrophy, which can raise your risks for a variety of scary conditions ranging from malnutrition to certain cancers.

Conversely, at least one study showed that people with celiac have less of an early death risk if they're careful in following the gluten-free diet. Even though that research is preliminary, it might be enough to keep you from grabbing a doughnut.

It's less clear what health risks go hand-in-hand with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, although some researchers in the field have speculated that it could contribute to serious mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and autism. Others have linked it to migraine and joint pain, plus autoimmunity in general.

It's not clear whether these links and others will be borne out by future research, but you may not want to take the chance. Just ask yourself: Is a slice of pizza (however delicious) worth risking my good health? Speaking of good health, if you cheat ...

2. You'll feel awful. Like, a truck just ran over you awful. Really, really awful. I describe my glutenings as a full-body flu because literally everything hurts. My brain is so foggy from gluten that I can't even think, and gluten-induced fatigue keeps me from doing anything more than the absolute minimum I must to keep my life running.

Seriously, why would you do this to yourself?

You might not believe the warnings — after all, you ate gluten for years and it never hit you like a truck then, right? And I'll confess: I didn't believe the warnings either at first. I had to try it for myself to prove it (and yes, more than once). Although there were others, my most, er, memorable incident involved funnel cakes at a fair. And I'll tell you, those three bites of funnel cake cost me a week of my life.

Now, this doesn't apply to absolutely everyone — there are people with so-called silent celiac disease who have no symptoms before they're diagnosed and no symptoms after, either, even if they consume an entire plate of pasta. But for most of us (celiacs and gluten-sensitives), the evidence shows that once our bodies rid themselves of gluten, they'll complain loudly if we try to bring it back. Which brings us to ...

3. You might gain weight. Now, you're probably thinking the idea that the gluten-free diet can work for weight loss has been debunked, so why would you gain weight by going off the diet? Frankly, the truth surrounding the diet's ability to help you shed some pounds is a lot more, well, nuanced than some of the snarkier headlines would make it out to be.

There actually haven't been any studies looking at whether overweight people who follow the gluten-free diet lose weight more or less easily than those who don't eat gluten-free. However, some physicians — notably, cardiologist Dr. William Davis — maintain that wheat by nature promotes weight gain. There's some very preliminary medical research exploring possible mechanisms that back this up.

Now, some people with celiac disease are dangerously underweight at diagnosis. But more these days are overweight. Once you're diagnosed and eating gluten-free, your weight tends to revert to "normal," meaning if you're underweight you'll gain weight and if you're overweight you'll tend to lose weight.

Once they go gluten-free, many overweight people feel as if they've found the puzzle piece they've been missing in their weight struggle — finally they can shed some of those excess pounds. If you're one of them, why would you want to mess that up?

Anecdotally, I've heard from readers who reliably gain weight — several pounds or more — anytime they cheat on their gluten-free diets (or get glutened accidentally). Some of this likely is just water weight (and therefore might go away pretty quickly), but do you really want to break out your fat jeans and huge baggy t-shirt simply because you couldn't resist the Krispy Kreme? People might notice, and then ...

4. Your friends and family won't take you seriously. People in your life are going to ascribe the same level of importance to your diet as you do. And if you cheat, they'll assume you don't think the diet is essential to your well-being ... and they'll act accordingly.

That may mean they might roll their eyes at you when you ask for them to consider your gluten-free restaurant choice, or they'll ignore your request for a gluten-free kitchen. You'll just lose a lot of credibility with them, and you'll be well on your way to being that person who's gluten-free only when it suits her (see: How To Be Gluten-Free Without Being Totally Annoying).

Do you want to be that person? Nope, didn't think so.

So that's what we've got: your health (future and immediate), your looks (vain but true) and your whole persona, as seen by those closest to you (yes, pretty important). All of them are screaming "back away from the cupcake!" about as loudly as they can. You don't have to listen ... but I really hope you do.

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