Should I Go Gluten Free?

Nov 1, 2018 | Food and Nutrition |

The Dirt:

Are you thinking about going “gluten-free”? Many people claim it helps them lose weight or ease inflammation. And these days, gluten-free options abound in the grocery store and on restaurant menus. Gluten-free isn’t for everyone.

You probably have a lot of friends that have kicked gluten to the curb. In fact, up to a third of Americans are cutting back on it in the hope that it will improve their health.

Doing so requires a lot of discipline because gluten is in so many common (and favorite) foods. Say sayonara to whole wheat bread, fresh pasta, couscous, pretzels, granola, flour tortillas, beer, and generally anything else that is made from grain flour. Many other foods could include gluten, even foods that are not obvious, such as salad dressings and soy sauce. Of course, there are choices available for gluten-free wheat…but it is cumbersome to manage.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a combination of two proteins – gliadin and glutenin. That’s it. Two simple proteins found in almost all grains. They give dough its elastic and rising properties and provide texture to the finished product. Without gluten, your bread would not be airy and light and your cookies would be flat and dense.

Why are people going gluten-free?

For the most part, consumers are going gluten-free to stay healthy and shed a few extra pounds. However, this is not a recommended way to maintain a balanced diet. Gluten-free does not necessarily equal weight loss. Additionally, people who follow a gluten-free diet (and don’t need to) often lack needed nutrients by eliminating an entire food group.

The only reasons to eliminate gluten from your diet are:

  1. If you have celiac disease. This is a very serious issue for roughly 1% of the population. In some cases, people afflicted with celiac can be hospitalized from eating gluten. If you have celiac disease, your body is unable to process the gluten protein and you can develop painful inflammation and damage in your intestinal tract and other areas of your body.
  2. You have been tested and confirmed with a ‘gluten sensitivity’. Those that test positive have a different immune response to grain proteins. The terms non-celiac gluten sensitivity and non-celiac wheat sensitivity are generally used to refer to this condition, and when removing gluten from the diet resolves symptoms. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, “At this point, research has not confirmed that gluten is the culprit triggering the immune reaction as is the case with celiac disease.”

Do we need gluten as part of a balanced diet?

Not all foods that contain gluten are healthy. For instance, eating pizza every day will cause you to gain weight – but this weight gain is not in response to eating gluten! But nutritionists and medical professionals will advise against going gluten-free (unless you have a medical reason) because whole grains are essential for a healthy diet.

Wheat, barley, and rye, for example, are good sources of B vitamins, fiber, iron, and some essential trace minerals, such as manganese and selenium. A diet containing whole grains helps reduce your risk of heart disease, and dietary fiber found in whole grains can reduce cholesterol levels. Whole grains also help you maintain healthy blood pressure.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “in the U.S., gluten-free foods tend to be lower in folate, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. This may be because in this country most wheat products are enriched with folic acid, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron, while gluten-free flours, cereals, and bread products typically are not.”

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, children should consume between 6-11 servings of whole grain a day, and adults should consume between 3 and 5 servings of whole grain every day.

Whole grains provide essential vitamins and minerals. source: Whole Grains Council

The gluten labeling craze.

Because so many consumers have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon, food companies (and grocery stores) are going crazy with the gluten-free label. It seems like every product in the grocery store indicates whether the product has gluten— even when it’s not a grain based food!

Gluten-free labeling is even on products that would never contain gluten in the first place. Ice cream does not have grain. Neither does cheese!

Despite what marketing efforts will have you believe, gluten-free products are not inherently healthier. Gluten-free substitutes may contain other additives, and, unlike whole wheat options, they are not typically enriched with additional nutrients. In fact, many gluten-free products are higher in saturated fat and sugar. Look closely at the nutrition and ingredient labels next time you are considering a gluten-free purchase!

If you do not experience any symptoms when consuming gluten, that means your body is comfortable digesting it. But, if you choose to join the crowd and go gluten-free anyway, it is important to know how you will be replacing the nutrients you are inevitably eliminating.

The Bottom Line:

Unless you have a medical reason for it, there is no benefit to a gluten-free diet. It is more important to maintain a balanced diet that includes heart-healthy, whole grains.