IS GLUTEN-FREE FOR ME?
Have you ever wondered why foods that are supposed to be bad for you, can taste so good, and foods that are good for you – well, sometimes, they don’t taste that great… I’ve never liked the idea of foods being classified as “good” or “bad”. How often have you heard someone say “I was bad today because I ate _______ (insert “bad” food here). Or, I was so good yesterday, because I had ___________ (insert “good” food here). Unfortunately, we internalize the idea that eating bad foods somehow makes us “bad” and eating good foods make us “good”. Healthy or unhealthy, yes, but no food is inherently “good” or “bad”. It gets even more confusing when certain foods – despite their “bad” reputation – are healthy for us to eat.
This couldn’t be more true when it comes to wheat and other foods containing gluten. The confusion about gluten has caused many to avoid eating wheat and other grains altogether. But is it helpful? More importantly, could it be harmful?
We had a great discussion about this topic in my nutrition class at Bryn Athyn College the other day when we covered gastrointestinal disorders. Students learned that gluten must be eliminated from the diet by individuals who have celiac disease. But there were lots of misperceptions about what the rest of us should do…
As I explained to my students, gluten is a type of protein found in certain grains, like wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten causes inflammation of the small intestine in people with celiac disease. This can result in serious abdominal pain, diarrhea, and gas, malabsorption of nutrients, joint and muscle pain, skin conditions, and fatigue. These individuals must strictly adhere to a gluten-free diet for the rest of their lives.
Researchers are just beginning to explore non-celiac gluten sensitivity (‘gluten sensitivity’), a term that has been coined to describe those individuals who cannot tolerate gluten and experience symptoms like those with celiac disease yet lack the same antibodies and intestinal damage that is seen in celiac disease. Individuals with non-celiac gluten sensitivity experience non-GI symptoms, such as headache, “foggy mind,” joint pain, and numbness in the legs, arms, or fingers.
For individuals who don’t have issues with gluten, there hadn’t been any scientific evidence that avoiding gluten impacts health – until recently. According to research presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention / Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health Conference (March 2017) data from three long-term studies on 200,000 people that showed that diets higher in gluten were associated with a lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. It’s important to point out that the researchers weren’t looking at people on gluten-free diets – they were studying associations between eating gluten and diabetes risk.
Of the gluten-containing grains, wheat is by far the most commonly consumed, and is a key source of fiber, along with vitamins and minerals that helps to decrease risk of stroke, heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Since gluten-free foods tend to be low in fiber, perhaps it’s the lack of fiber, not gluten per se, that is linked to an increased risk for diabetes. If that’s the case, the negative outcome of eating less gluten could be moderated by gluten-free grains that are high fiber, like quinoa, buckwheat, and oats.
NATURALLY GLUTEN-FREE VS. PROCESSED GLUTEN-FREE
For an otherwise healthy person, one potential snag with going gluten free involves the nutritional quality of the products designed by companies as substitutions for those containing gluten. Look carefully at a food label ingredient list and you’ll find that these products contain processed grains like rice flour, potato and tapioca starch in place of gluten-containing grains. These refined ingredients lack fiber, iron, folate, vitamin B12, calcium, and other essential vitamins and minerals. In addition, they don’t contain the helpful gut bacteria that wheat provides.
I’ve found that individuals who go gluten-free attribute their weight loss or feeling better to the lack of gluten in their new diet. The reality is, following a gluten free diet requires individuals to be more mindful of their overall food choices. Excess calories from refined carbohydrates, like baked goods and snack foods are reduced, and more wholesome foods like fruits and vegetables are increased. Most likely, in healthy individuals, it’s these changes that have led to weight loss and an overall sense of well-being – not a lack of gluten. So, for some, maybe it’s time to reconsider, and “wheat up!”
Next up – eggs.