How I Went Gluten Free – Thanks to My DNA

Jules Walters headshot

Jules Walters • Feb 1, 2024

Two of my favorite foods are bread and pasta. What could be better than waking to the smell of freshly-baked bread? Or serving a bowl of spaghetti with lashings of grated parmesan cheese?

But I’ve had to rethink my favorite foods, after a genetic test showed my body might really prefer it if I cut out the gluten.

You will commonly find gluten in wheat-based products, such as bread and crackers, as well as other grains. Rye and barley, for example. Thankfully, I’m not a fan of beer, another common source of gluten. But the rest of my diet was going to need a serious rethink. 

Field of gluten containing wheat ripening in sunshine

How personalized nutrition is becoming real through genetic testing

My gluten insight came thanks to a nutrigenomics test. Nutrigenomics is an emerging science, which focuses on how food and our environment interact with our genes.

One way of grouping influential genes is by their metabolic pathways. These include energy, activity and nutrition. Grouping can reveal connections more clearly, and in context, instead of focusing on one gene or food group in isolation. 

The results of my test showed I have a variation in my DNA, at a gene allied HLA. It’s a common variation in people with celiac disease. And it’s a gene that plays a central role in the immune system. The genetic variant I have is called DQ2.5, which makes it possible that gluten could trigger celiac disease. Celiac is a common autoimmune condition that starts in the small intestine.

As far as I know, I don’t have celiac disease yet. The closest I’ve come is feeling bloated after eating bread. And HLA is a low-penetrant gene. Low penetrant meaning: just because you have an influential gene, you won’t necessarily develop a condition linked to that gene. 

“Genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger.”

Francis Collins; Director, National Institutes of Health

There will be other influential factors but, for me, I’ve decided life will probably be longer and healthier if I ditched the gluten.

I’ve always been interested in the power of DNA to reveal insights about our particular biological makeup. I graduated with a degree in molecular genetics from King’s College London 20 years ago. Back then, we were very focused on how serious medical conditions could result from a single-gene disorder, like cystic fibrosis. 

Benefits of nutrigenomics testing for health outcomes – informed by your DNA – Abstract image

Nutrigenomics testing becoming more accessible

It’s really only been in the past few years that nutrigenomics testing has become widely accessible for anyone wanting a truly personalized diet. A diet that’s based on our individual genetic makeup.

My test cost a couple of hundred US dollars. Not bad, when you consider that sequencing of the first human genome cost three hundred million dollars back in 2000. 

What is nutrigenomics?

The field of nutrigenomics really got going after the completion of the Human Genome Project, back in the 1990s. The project’s outcome was a description of our estimated 20,000 to 25,000 human genes.  

Since then, much more research has gone into understanding how the different foods we eat interact with our genes. Nutrigenomics is the field of science that explains how food, and our environment, affect those genes. 

Small DNA variations can make big differences

Small differences in our DNA can make a big difference in the way foods affect our health, through tiny variations called single nucleotide polymorphisms. We refer to them in short as SNPs (pronounced SNIPs).

Traditionally, dietary advice has been based on a one-size fits all approach. For example, about six per cent of us are sensitive to gluten. If you’re one of them, a dietician might suggest you come off gluten as a first step in an elimination diet. The purpose: to see if stopping gluten makes you feel better. It’s really a trial and error approach. A more precise approach would be to see if our DNA predicts gluten sensitivity.

Freshly baked bread displayed on woven basket.(Nutrigenomics testing of DNA may suggest gluten free diet)

What is IN and OUT to go gluten free?

My first action was to start Googling. Do oats have gluten? Is sourdough gluten free? What about rice?

I found this meal planner helpful at the Celiac Disease Foundation, and then I paid a longer-than-usual visit to my local supermarket; checking the labels. The gluten-free section gave me hope that gluten free doesn’t necessarily mean fun free. It just needs planning. 

Most grains are out

So, in were oats. I could eat oats, but I had to search for gluten-free oats, as wheat and oats are often packaged in the same facility. 

Sourdough is a no for now, as it’s not gluten free – more gluten light. The process of making sourdough, though, does help to break down the gluten. Gluten is a protein that’s, well, like glue. It’s what gives bread that doughy texture. 

Rice is nice

Rice is good in all its forms. In fact, it’s one of the most popular no-gluten grains for people with celiac disease. Again, rice can come into contact with wheat during the packing process. So, I’ve learned to check the labels to confirm the rice I buy is gluten free.

How will I know if gluten free is working?

Like many things in life, the evidence that gluten free is working for me will be subtle. I won’t feel so bloated after a meal. I might finally drop the few extra kilos I’ve been carrying around. And, I should generally feel more energized.

I would not have made the change to go gluten free unless my DNA had told me so. I like the fact that my three billion base pairs of genetic code contain news I can use. It’s a powerful motivator to live in alignment with what works for my biological makeup.