Inflammation Guide Part 1: How Gluten and Dairy Impact Your Inflammation

Is it time to ditch dairy and wave goodbye to gluten? Some of today’s most popular diets and influencers advocate for oat milk lattes and almond flour muffins, claiming that dairy and gluten are the leading dietary causes of inflammation. 

Chronic inflammation can propel us toward a whole host of health hardships, including cancer, heart disease, and cognitive decline.

But before you buy that moo-free milk or start spreading your cashew cheese on cassava crackers, let’s make an informed decision about these products in the limelight. 

What is Inflammation?

Inflammation is our immune system’s natural response to an irritant. This process, called acute inflammation, can actually protect and heal our bodies from injury, irritation, or infection. 

Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, can last anywhere from weeks to years. Autoimmune conditions, chronic stress, long-term exposure to pollutants, and certain diets can cause chronic inflammation. 

While acute inflammation can heal us, chronic inflammation creates destructive reactions, cell damage, and an increased risk of many diseases, including diabetes, dementia, depression, and cancer. 

Does Gluten Really Cause Inflammation? 

Gluten is a complex of proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale. People with celiac disease or a wheat allergy cannot tolerate gluten in their diets. When eaten, gluten triggers their immune systems, causing increased inflammation throughout their body’s organs and soft tissue. 

But there’s another gluten sensitivity that’s a bit more sneaky called “gluten intolerance.” Here are seven symptoms that point to a gluten intolerance if they occur shortly after consuming gluten:

  • Diarrhea and constipation
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain or nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Joint pain
  • Depression or anxiety

If your doctor has ruled out more serious conditions like celiac disease or a wheat allergy, but you’re experiencing some or all of these symptoms, you may be gluten-intolerant. 

The best way to know (since there are no tests to tell for sure) is to eliminate gluten from your diet and see how you feel! If your symptoms go away or diminish significantly, you can use common sense to know that gluten was the culprit the whole time. 

Does Dairy Really Cause Inflammation? 

Dairy—all products made from milk—includes such a vast number of products that it’s hard to write it off completely. That said, a diet high in saturated fats (which are plentiful in full-fat dairy products) can increase inflammation. 

Dairy products, and specifically the high amount of saturated fats they contain, are associated with inflammation and a number of unwanted symptoms like acne, bloating, and upset stomach. 

Additionally, the fat in cow’s milk contains a high amount of a certain fatty acid called omega-6. Inflammation increases when we consume more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids (found in whole foods like wild-caught salmon). 

While both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are essential, we have to have them in the proper proportion. Our bodies thrive on an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 1:1. However, cow milk’s ratio reaches almost 6:1.

Finally, lactose—a sugar found naturally in the milk of most mammals—can cause digestive issues and inflammation. Lactose intolerance is rampant around the world. Potentially 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant. 80% of all African-Americans and Native Americans are lactose intolerant. Over 90% of Asian-Americans are lactose intolerant. 

For the lactose-intolerant, consumed dairy can’t be fully digested. Instead, the lactose begins to ferment in the colon, causing inflammation, bloating, and uncomfortable symptoms. 

Here are 9 signs that you may be part of the large lactose intolerant crew. Soon after eating dairy, you experience: 

  • Stomach pain or discomfort
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea 
  • Constipation
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue or loss of concentration
  • Joint pain
  • Eczema

Since these symptoms could have other causes, you can complete a hydrogen breath test to tell how your body digests lactose. However, these tests aren’t foolproof. Up to 20% of people with lactose malabsorption will not test positive. 

The best way to know whether you’re lactose intolerant is to use the cut-out method. Restrict or avoid dairy for a set time. If your symptoms diminish or disappear, you can know these products don’t sit well with your body.

Why Should I Care About Reducing Inflammation? 

Does inflammation really make that big of a difference? 

Hell, yes. 

Inflammation is the root cause of all diseases. It’s associated with increases in CVD, obesity, diabetes, IBS, IBD, macular degeneration, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and cancer. 

Healing inflammation is the key to overall health. When we reduce inflammation in the body, we also reduce bloating and fluid retention. 

Do You Have to Cut Out Dairy and Gluten Completely to Reduce Inflammation? 

Nope! Gluten and dairy don’t cause inflammation in everyone. For most of us, we can tolerate dairy and gluten in moderation. 

You may benefit hugely from cutting out gluten, especially, if you have a health condition like celiac disease, a wheat allergy, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Similarly, if you are experiencing adverse side effects from dairy, ditch it and dive into that carton of coconut yogurt!

While food choices alone may not completely solve chronic inflammation, some diet changes can help. Plus, there are other factors that affect inflammation that you can adjust, like: 

  • Intermittent Fasting: This technique not only helps with weight loss, but can also reduce inflammation, boost your metabolism, and help you stay consistent with your health goals. 

  • Boosting Omega-3s: Cut back on ingredients that are heavy in omega-6 fatty acids (like vegetable oils), and up your omega-3s by eating foods like wild-caught salmon.  Consider supplementing with a good quality fish oil or Antarctic Krill oil to boost your omega-3s more. 

Simple Swaps to Reduce Inflammation

Here’s a quick swap list of the easiest substitutions to help reduce inflammatory gluten and dairy products in your diet: 

  • If you want to ditch gluten flour, use coconut or cassava flour. Nut flours contain high amounts of omega-6 and have the potential for oxidation. 

  • Skip refined grains and pick anti-inflammatory whole grains, like millet, basmati, brown or wild rice, quinoa, amaranth, flax, wheat berries, barley, buckwheat, or steel-cut oats. These have been associated with reducing inflammation. 

  • Go for anti-inflammatory dairy products, like grass-fed and organic milk, cheese, butter, ghee, yogurt, or sheep and goat products. These are easier to digest, have a better omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, and may even reduce inflammation. 

  • Ditch the A1 proteins in milk and try a glass of a2 Milk. This milk is made from cows that only produce the A2 protein, which is much easier to digest. Goat cheese, feta, manchego, and pecorino also contain only A2 protein and can be easier on lactose-sensitive tummies. 

  • Bake with coconut oil instead of butter. The two ingredients have similar traits, so you can swap them out 1:1. Find a coconut oil that’s cold-pressed and organic, like this one

Ready for a Radical Shift? 

Healthy living has to fit into your lifestyle. At LEAN, no food is off-limits. Gluten and dairy are problematic for many and decrease the ability to lose weight. That’s why we aim to be gluten and dairy-free as much as possible. 

For more tips on how to make simple switches toward healthier living, sign up for the LEAN newsletter. If you’re ready to get serious about your health and fitness, join the next LEAN session

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