The obsession with gluten-free as the new healthy has reached new heights, but should you really jump on the bandwagon? Let’s hear it from nutrition Expert Kaleigh McMordie on why those gluten-free products aren’t really sensible in the long run.
It seems like everybody and their dog is avoiding gluten these days. (No really…have you seen the gluten-free dog food they are selling now? I doubt your dog is allergic to gluten.)
More and more restaurants have gluten-free menus, and gluten-free products are becoming the norm. Although technically, they were the norm to begin with since most whole foods like fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and some grains are naturally gluten-free.
But despite the growing number of those on gluten-free diets, the number of people with Celiac disease is roughly the same as it has been for decades, around 1-2% of the population. So why is everybody shunning gluten, and what is the truth behind these expensive, high-maintenance, gluten-free diets?
Here are the facts:
First, let’s talk about what gluten is.
Gluten is a protein made up of glutenin and gliadin that is found in mature wheat, rye, and barley. It is generally not considered unhealthy unless you have celiac disease.
A true allergy to gluten is called celiac disease,
and it only affects 1-2 % of the population. These people have an autoimmune disorder that requires a blood test and intestinal biopsies. When they ingest gluten, it destroys the villi of their intestines, causing GI symptoms like diarrhea and malabsorption of nutrients. It can lead to nutrient deficiencies and other symptoms such as anemia, fatigue, osteoporosis, and a skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis. People with celiac must avoid gluten at all costs and it is quite a pain in the booty!
On the other hand, “gluten sensitivity” may or may not be a real thing.
In 2012, researchers coined the term “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” to describe those who present with mild symptoms and claim to feel better when they eliminate gluten from the diet but do not have an autoimmune reaction or intestinal atrophy when consuming gluten containing foods.
But the same researcher who thought he proved that gluten sensitivity was real came back a few years later and said: “Well actually, it might not be real.”
He conducted another study in which he eliminated many foods (similar to a low FODMAP diet), and subjects still reported the same symptoms even when gluten was removed. It wasn’t until removing all foods that can sometimes cause irritation (such as dairy, sugar alcohols, fructose) that symptoms began to improve. So basically, they don’t know which of the common irritating foods is the actual culprit. The jury is out on this one.
Removing gluten from your diet may do more harm than good.
A gluten-free diet may lack fiber, B-vitamins, folate, and iron since many gluten-containing foods, such as whole wheat breads and cereals, already provide or are fortified with these nutrients while their gluten-free counterparts are not. This may put you at risk for a deficiency if you follow a gluten-free diet and are not paying close attention to eating other whole foods that are rich in these nutrients. Folate and iron are especially important if you are a female of childbearing age.
And gluten-free diet doesn’t equate to “healthy” or “weight loss.”
A gluten-free cookie is still a cookie, no matter how you look at it. It still contains sugar and fats, possibly even more to make up for the stiffer texture. A whole wheat piece of toast is much healthier for you in terms of nutrients than a gluten-free muffin (which probably contains very low fiber).
If you are trying to lose weight, a balanced approach that includes minimally processed whole grains (such as rolled oats and brown rice) and real, whole foods like fruit, vegetables, and lean protein is best. Again, most whole foods don’t have gluten in them anyway!
Bottom line: if you don’t have celiac disease, it’s not practical to avoid gluten. You’ll have a more sensible way to be healthier in the long run, and your taste buds and bank account will thank you for it. Of course if you do have celiac disease, always follow a strict gluten-free diet with the help of a Registered Dietitian and other qualified health professionals.
HEADER IMAGE: BROOKE LARK
Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN is a Texas-based Registered Dietitian and food enthusiast who shares delicious recipes for those who seek a healthy, vibrant life. By focusing on nourishment without giving up the joy of good food, Kaleigh helps others attain a balanced, wholesome approach to life that brings people together. Learn more about Kaleigh and visit her at Lively Table.