Gluten free doesn't always mean healthy

If you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, there is currently no other option for good health than eating a gluten free diet. There are people who suffer from conditions like IBS, Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism and other autoimmune disorders who have found relief from their symptoms by avoiding gluten-containing foods.

However, there are also people who do not have a diagnosed medical condition who believe that simply swapping out “regular” baked goods and pastas for their gluten-free counterparts is a healthy choice. There are those who may think that a gluten-free diet is a sure-fire way to lose weight. In fact, following a gluten-free diet when not medically necessary can be an unhealthy choice. Eating gluten free does necessarily bring about weight-loss and you can miss out on sources of vital nutrients.

What is gluten and where is it found?

Gluten is a protein present in various cereal grains, especially wheat. It provides the elastic texture of dough and delectable chewiness in baked goods. Besides wheat, gluten is found in barley, rye and related species as well as products made from these grains. Barley malt, for example, contains gluten and is found in everything from candies like malted milk balls to many breakfast cereals, vinegars and beer. People who follow a gluten free diet must necessarily avoid these foods as well as obvious items such as wheat-based breads, rolls, cakes, cookies and breaded foods. Gluten is present in many processed items as well. Many well-known brands of canned soups and chilis, condiments and salad dressings contain gluten. Most brands of soy sauce have wheat ingredients as do candies such as licorice. Beers and malt liquors are also off-limits on a gluten free diet. Eating gluten free means carefully checking labels on everything.

For those who are sensitive to gluten, exposure to the protein is a very serious matter.

When gluten comes into contact with the digestive tract, the body’s immune system reacts to the proteins as a sort of foreign invader and mounts an attack against it. In celiac disease, the immune system not only attacks the gluten proteins but also attacks the intestinal wall itself. Celiac disease is classified as an autoimmune disease and can lead to chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating and constipation. Its long-term effects include nutrient deficiencies, anemia, brain fog, fatigue and an increased risk of serious diseases such as cancer. According to the Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago, approximately 1% of the American population has celiac disease. Many are undiagnosed. While there are no hard figures available, medical researchers suspect that gluten sensitivity and intolerance affect even more people than celiac disease.

Eating gluten free does not necessarily mean healthy

Over the past ten years, there has been a great deal of media attention on the gluten free diet. A simple Google search reveals that there are arguments for and against the notion that gluten is something that everyone should avoid, each backed by different scientific studies. If you think you have celiac disease, gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity, the best course of action to go to a doctor and get a diagnosis. Simply switching to a gluten-free diet in the belief that you are eating more healthfully is not necessarily true.

Potential pitfalls of the gluten free diet

When it comes to weight loss, enjoying a diet rich in naturally gluten free foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy proteins will absolutely help people to lose weight. Cutting back on high-calorie, sugary cookies, cakes and candy is a no-brainer. Swapping out “regular” brownies and donuts for gluten free ones, however, is not a good idea. Gluten free treats may be even more fattening and less healthy than ones that contain gluten. Generally speaking, gluten free baked goods such as bread, snacks and desserts do not contain the same important nutrients as their “regular” counterparts. Gluten free baked goods are usually made with ingredients such as rice flours, corn starch, potato starch, sorghum flour, tapioca and millet. Flours made with these ingredients are higher in carbohydrates and lower in protein and other nutrients than wheat flour.

Rice flour is the most common component of many gluten free baked goods. Both wheat flour and rice flour contain similar levels of thiamine, niacin and riboflavin. Both contain vitamin E. However, whole wheat flour offers 14 percent of the daily recommendation of folate. Folate is essential for the growth and development of new cells and is instrumental in lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. Whole wheat flour also provides more phytonutrients called lignans. Lignans block the effects of estrogens and can help reduce the risk of certain cancers and heart disease.

Is too much rice in your diet a problem?

Many people on the gluten free diet find themselves consuming a lot of rice. Not only are gluten free baked goods made largely of rice flour but rice shows up in gluten free crackers, cereals and pastas in addition to being consumed as a side dish by itself. Recently, dieticians and consumer advocates have begun raising awareness about the high content of arsenic in rice. Arsenic is a toxic element that naturally occurs in the environment but is also found in pesticides, fertilizers and industrial pollutants. Because rice is grown in flooded fields, it absorbs more arsenic from the environment than other crops. While highly concentrated doses of arsenic can be fatal, exposure to smaller amounts of arsenic can also cause health issues. The problem is that while research is underway, there is no concrete data on the health effects of chronic low doses of arsenic or recommendations for “safe” amounts of overall intake.

In the meantime, doctors recommend that people on gluten free diets try to be mindful of how much rice they consume, strive for moderation and find alternatives. There are many nutritious grains that can be substituted for rice such as quinoa (a good source of protein), amaranth, corn, buckwheat and millet. Instead of eating rice crackers with cheese or dip, try sliced zucchini, cucumbers, pepper or carrots. Enjoy occasional sweets and desserts that are not rice flour-based.

The bottom line is that if you must eat a gluten free diet or choose to do so, make sure to fill your plate with lots of fruits and vegetables, lean meats and low-fat dairy products. Replace wheat with healthy grains like quinoa and buckwheat and be mindful of how much rice you consume. Gluten free “junk food” is still “junk food” after all.

Katherine Weinstein

I started out with academic aspirations and taught drama and intermediate ESL classes as an adjunct instructor in Boston. Later, I changed careers and worked in museum fundraising for several years. Since starting a family, I have worked from home as a freelance grant writer and as an on-line teacher’s assistant and writing tutor. I am passionate about the arts and history and enjoy Utah’s incredible natural landscapes.