Is Gluten-Free Healthy for Everyone?

by Heather on January 11, 2013

The gluten-free trend continues to thrive, but is a gluten-free diet healthier? Many believe it is, and will ultimately lead to weight loss, even if a person does not have a gluten allergy. Long before celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Miley Cyrus were advocating the wheat-free lifestyle, a gluten-free diet was the prescription for a serious gluten allergy and autoimmune digestive disease known as celiac disease.

Gluten to an individual with celiac disease is like poison. When someone with celiac disease consumes even the smallest amount of gluten, the body reacts by attacking itself. This reaction damages the small intestine; where the majority of food absorption takes place. This can lead to large amounts of gastrointestinal distress and malnutrition. Gluten is found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. Most breads, crackers and cereals contain gluten.

According to the Celiac Sprue Association, when a person with CP consumes gluten, symptoms include:

  • Abdominal cramping and bloating
  • Anemia
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss

Interestingly, more people are gluten sensitive or intolerant today than ever before. The rate has increased four-fold over the past 50 years and celiac disease now affects 1 in 133 Americans. Researchers are beginning to look in to the cause of this increase. Two possible reasons have come to the forefront. One cause may be our grain. Our grain is very different today then the grain our grandparents ate. The grain we grow today has been genetically modified and contains a higher amount of protein. A second possible cause is that our intestines are actually less healthy than they used to be due to increased use of antibiotics and over processed foods.

If you find eliminating gluten from your diet helps you feel better, than you may be gluten sensitive – an allergy test can help diagnose this. For those who are not gluten sensitive, gluten free is not a cure all and may not be the best way to lose weight. Many equate gluten-free with healthy, but if you ask these people why gluten free equals healthy, many of them would likely be unable to come up with a plausible answer. Most people do not know the nutritional facts behind this fad. Very simply, gluten- free does not necessarily mean healthy. Here’s why: Gluten-free is not fat-free or calorie-free. When gluten is missing, food manufacturers often use fat, sugar and other unnecessary additives in order to bind the food together. Does that sound healthier?

The bottom line… If you want to lose weight, forgoing gluten is likely not the diet to try (unless you have been diagnosed with a gluten allergy or sensitivity). Being gluten-free, when not medically necessary, is a very limited lifestyle. Gluten is not only found in a majority of products making food shopping more difficult, but choosing to be gluten-free can lead to critical nutritional deficiencies. Many who give up gluten are losing important nutrients such as B vitamins, iron and fiber. Many of these individuals are replacing whole grain and vitamin-enriched foods with over processed packaged products solely for the “magic” gluten-free label.

Gluten-free may not be the answer but simply swapping processed forms of simple carbohydrates such as white breads, crackers, sugary cereals and pastries with fiber rich complex carbohydrates like whole grain breads, crackers and cereals can aid in weight loss because these complex carbohydrates (sugar) take longer to break down in your intestines. Since complex carbs releases sugar into the bloodstream gradually, you will feel satisfied for a longer time and may have increased energy levels too.

If you opt to ignore what we have written here and hop on the gluten free bandwagon, don’t eliminate all grains from your diet. Instead of processed gluten-free snacks choose grains that don’t contain gluten and are protein and/or fiber packed grains such as quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, wild rice, and millet.

With a diagnosis of celiac disease it is imperative for your health to stay away from gluten. If you do not have celiac disease, avoiding gluten entirely may potentially do more harm than good and should not be eliminated from your diet.

Eating unprocessed balanced meals is  ALWAYS the best option for optimal health.

Written by: Katie Petroka – Nutrition Student

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