Have you ever thought about following a gluten free diet? Perhaps your friend recommended it, or you heard the latest celebrity on T.V. touting its benefits. With popular books like Grain Brain and Wheat Belly on the market it’s easy to see why you would want to give it a try. The gluten free market is larger than ever and there are no signs of it slowing down. Is this diet trend just a fleeting fad or does it really help us beat belly bloat and weight gain, cure brain fog, and live healthier?
Let’s start with the basics. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten helps make dough elastic and gives bread its chewy texture. Although gluten itself is a protein, it is found in foods which are primarily carbohydrates; like bread, pasta, cereal, and many desserts. Soy sauce, salad dressings, chips, and candies may also contain gluten. Starchy foods like rice, potatoes, oatmeal, and corn do not contain gluten.
For a small group of people who have Celiac Disease it is necessary to avoid gluten. Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten damages the small intestine. Celiac Disease is more prevalent in people with Type 1 Diabetes than in the general population.
Many people believe following a gluten free diet will help them lose weight, feel better, and control their blood sugar, although the research demonstrates that this is not true. In fact, in many cases the exact opposite is true. Following a gluten free diet may actually lead to weight gain or nutrient deficiencies. Below are five reasons not to go gluten free.
1. More sugar and sodium. Gluten free foods are often higher in sugar and sodium than their gluten-containing counterparts. For example, 1 slice of Natures Harvest whole wheat bread has 140 milligrams of sodium, while 1 slice of Schar gluten free bread has nearly double the sodium at 250 milligrams. Gluten free bakery items like muffins and bagels also tend to be higher in sugar to make up for the lack of flavor and texture that the gluten provides.
2. Less fiber. Whole wheat grains are one of the best sources of fiber in our diet. When alternative flours are used like corn or rice flour you are left with much less fiber. For example, gluten free Rice Chex has 1 gram of fiber, while Wheat Chex has 6 grams of fiber. Fiber is important to help slow the absorption of sugar into the blood stream and it can help reduce cholesterol.
3. Expensive. Gluten free specialty foods will definitely cost you a pretty penny. Many products are twice as expensive as the original and often times don’t taste as good.
4. Arsenic. Both brown and white rice contain small, but measurable levels of arsenic. If you are following a strict gluten free diet you may be relying heavily on rice and rice products, therefore increasing your exposure to arsenic. Regular exposure to small amounts of arsenic can increase the risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer, as well as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Arsenic exposure can be especially risky for young children, due to their small body size.
5. No Fortification. Wheat bread is fortified with folic acid and iron. Folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects in newborns. Many gluten free products are not fortified with these important nutrients.
While it is important for those with Celiac Disease to avoid gluten, it is clear that gluten free is not a synonym for “Healthy” or “Low Carb.” According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics there is no experimental data to support the health claims of following a gluten free diet for the general population. Gluten free foods are not more nutritious or lower in calories than their counterparts. If you still have your heart set on eating gluten free the best thing to do is eat whole foods which naturally do not contain gluten; like fruits, vegetables, meat, and certain grains like quinoa and corn.
This article was originally published in Low Sugar Living Spring 2015 edition.