In reality, there’s nothing inherently healthier about a gluten-free diet, especially pre-packaged “gluten-free” products, processed with extra additives such as sugar and fat to improve palatability. Gluten-free is also NOT synonymous with low carb, but more on that later.
So who really benefits from this diet?
About 1% of people in the U.S. are sensitive to gluten due to celiac disease – an abnormal immune reaction to gliadin, a component of gluten. Gluten, a protein in wheat, rye and barley, shows up in bread and pasta, but may also hide in many other foods, such as cold cuts, salad dressings, beer, and even licorice. Symptoms of intolerance typically include abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea. Untreated, the inflammation gradually damages the intestines and hampers the absorption of vitamins and minerals and can lead to malnutrition and weight loss. A strict gluten-free diet is the only treatment for celiac disease, to control symptoms and prevent complications.
Experts now believe that celiac disease represents just one extreme of a broad spectrum of gluten intolerance that includes millions of people with less severe – but nevertheless symptomatic – reactions to the protein. A rough estimate is that as many as 10% have a related condition known as non-celiac gluten intolerance, or gluten sensitivity. Since gluten is a large, hard-to-digest protein, it’s possible that there may be some kind of gluten intolerance in all of us.
So what should you do if you suspect your body can’t tolerate gluten? The first thing would be to get tested for celiac disease. If the test comes back negative, try a gluten-free diet for a week to see if you feel better. Cutting out gluten is the most reliable way to determine if you are sensitive to the protein; and if you are sensitive, it’s the only treatment.
Foods that are gluten-free are often thought to be low-carb because they lack wheat flour. While it is true that wheat flour is a source of carbohydrates, gluten-free foods often contain additional ingredients that are just as high, if not higher in carbohydrates than wheat flour, such as rice flour or potato flour. Gluten-free recipes may also call for honey and/or sugar, both high in carbohydrates.
Keep in mind that gluten-free diet is a difficult diet to follow. Even if you avoid all gluten-containing grains and products made of them, you’ll have to check labels carefully to avoid hidden sources of gluten, as it’s often found where you least expect it (i.e. ketchup, ice cream, soy sauce and salad dressing).
Moreover, gluten-free doesn’t necessarily mean nutritious. Similar to what happens with other processed foods, manufacturers add extra sugar, fat and salt, and remove the fiber to simulate the texture and satisfying fluffiness that gluten imparts, creating an unhealthy product. Another potential pitfall is that many gluten-free products contain lower amounts of essential nutrients and can cause deficiencies in Iron, Vitamin B9 (folic acid), Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Magnesium and fiber.
So if you plan to go gluten free, avoid pre-packaged products on the market shelves. Select more fruits, vegetables, dairy products, eggs, lean meats, and naturally gluten-free WHOLE grains like brown rice and quinoa. As you can see, there are a number of whole food, low carb, gluten-free options and the diet prescribed is not too far off from what we recommend here at GreenLite Medicine.