Poor gluten. Even though it is legitimately avoided by people who suffer some very real side effects from it, it has also been vilified unnecessarily by far too many people.

From the misguided (and frankly ridiculous) belief that gluten is "toxic," to the utterly false claim that gluten makes you fat (it doesn’t, obviously), it’s safe to say that this grain protein has suffered a major image crisis in the past few years. 

If you've been considering removing gluten, or have experienced some bad GI symptoms and wonder if it's gluten, this will help you understand what's going on with your body, why non-gluten sensitivity is oftentimes mistreated, and how you should fix your stomach issues.

Does Gluten Make You Fat?

Gluten itself does not make you fat. The majority of people are not gluten intolerant or sensitive. If you gluten-intolerant (or have celiac disease), the bloating and stomach issues that come with eating gluten are difficult and will make you feel like you're gaining fat (you're really just having a reaction to the food itself, like someone with an allergy).

But, for everyone else, there are many things that could be happening in your body. Of course, if you choose to remove gluten and feel better when eating non-gluten foods, do whatever works for you. But, this isn't a solution for most people because gluten isn't inherently bad. 

In fact, I’ve had a lot of clients come to me because after cutting out all gluten-containing foods and failing the blood test for celiac disease, they still have the bloating and other symptoms.

They figure they’re just gluten-sensitive, but still can’t find relief on a gluten-free diet and are at their wit's end trying to figure out what’s causing their issues.

It’s a common belief that abdominal symptoms after eating gluten-containing foods indicate gluten sensitivity, but in many cases, this may not be the actual diagnosis.

If Not Gluten, Why Does My Stomach Hurt?

A recent study published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology examined the response to gluten of 231 people who self-identified as being non-celiac gluten sensitive.

The study concluded that only 16% of the participants actually showed gluten-specific symptoms, and a full 40% more had symptoms that stayed the same or increased with a placebo. 

Turns out, these issues might not be caused gluten after all: they may be the result of an intolerance to fructans.

Fructans are a type of fermentable carbohydrate. If you’ve ever heard of the FODMAP diet, fructans are the ‘O’ -- as in, oligosaccharides.

They’re also a prebiotic fiber, which means they nourish the good bacteria in our guts. That’s great for people who can tolerate them, but not so much for people who can’t.

None of us have enzymes to digest fructans, which means that they travel to the large intestine, where they’re fermented by our gut bacteria. For most of us, this causes no issues, but for those people who are intolerant to them, fructans can sit in the large intestine and cause bloating, diarrhea, and gas. [Not exactly a trio to brag about to your friends.]

Research shows that fructans may be the source of the abdominal issues that many people suffer from: A 2018 study published in the journal Gastroenterology examined the causes of IBS-type symptoms in people who self-reported having gluten sensitivity. Participants were randomly divided into three groups, each having its own muesli bar that had gluten, fructan, or a placebo.

The study found that the majority of study subjects had symptoms that were triggered by fructan-containing bars, not the gluten-containing bars, which surprisingly caused no effect. Remember, these participants all self-identified as gluten-sensitive, but clearly they were mistaken.

Could fructans be causing your symptoms too?

It’s important to note that fructan intolerance and IBS are two different things. Although they commonly have many of the same symptoms, IBS is a disorder that affects the large intestine.

We don’t really know exactly what causes IBS, but possible causes include infection, muscle contractions of the intestine, inflammation, among others.

IBS appears to be a chronic condition, compared with fructan intolerance, which may be relieved by simply removing fructan from your diet.

What’s The Difference Between Gluten and Fructans?

Compared to fructans, which are carbohydrates, gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, oats, and barley, and therefore in any foods that contain these ingredients. Gluten-free grains are low in fructans.

In order to avoid them, it’s important to know which foods contain fructans. Fructans are commonly used in protein bars, breakfast cereals, and snack foods to add fiber and improve texture.

When reading labels, the following ingredients are common fructan culprits: 

  • chicory root
  • inulin
  • oligofructose

These are all different ways to list fructans as ingredients.

The fructan inulin is also naturally found in onions, bananas, garlic, chickpeas, watermelon, dates, prunes, raisins, pomegranate, grapefruit, and wheat.

Wheat accounts for 70% of fructans in the American diet, so if you’re following a gluten-free diet to try and relieve your symptoms, you’re probably getting some relief simply by not eating wheat.

However, some gluten-containing foods, like soy sauce and sourdough bread, for example, do not have fructans, and some fructan-containing foods, like watermelon and chickpeas, do not have gluten.

That means that if you’re intolerant to fructans, a gluten-free diet may not alleviate all of your symptoms and may also limit your diet more than necessary.

How to Fix Your Diet Without Removing Gluten

The FODMAP diet can help you identify if fructans are causing your symptoms. This diet cuts out every group of fermentable carbohydrates - FODMAP is an acronym for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols.

Don't worry, the diet doesn't require you to remove these foods forever. After about six weeks, you add them back, one-by-one, to determine your sensitivity. 

In most cases, by eliminating every one of these carbohydrate groups and then adding them back slowly, you’ll be able to pinpoint which foods are really causing you symptoms and which foods aren’t.

The process can be frustrating as it requires you to live without some of your favorite foods. But, in the end, you’ll likely identify which foods are the source of your problems, meaning you won’t be blindly cutting foods out of your diet trying to make yourself feel better and limiting your food options in the process.