Everything from crackers to pizza to beer is now carrying a gluten-free label.
Kinda reminds me of the 80s (anyone out there old enough to remember them?) when every cake, cookie and piece of chocolate carried a no-fat label.
But is there something to the diet du jour of this new millennium?
Certainly the American public thinks so.
In fact, the NPD Group, a market information and advisory service, found in a recent poll that almost 30 percent of respondents said they wanted to cut back or avoid gluten.
I thought perhaps there was something to the trend. But the more I delved into the research, the more I realized, if you value your health and your skinny jeans, you just might NOT want to hop on that bandwagon. (More on that later.)
Why Go Gluten Free?
Gluten, which is found in everything from breads to marinades, and even in some vitamins, is a protein found in certain grains. It gives foods a thicker, chewy texture.
But devotees of the gluten-free lifestyle are saying that the stuff can make you sick. And by going gluten free, you can gain all sorts of health benefits.
Everything from improving cholesterol levels to promoting digestive health to losing weight to increasing energy levels…
And while it’s easy to get caught up in the gluten-free hysteria, the fact of the matter is that only a tiny portion of the American population cannot eat the stuff.
Yes, only about 1% of Americans actually has celiac disease, an autoimmune digestive disease that causes intolerance to gluten, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.
That doesn’t come close to the NPD Group’s number of 30 percent trying to avoid gluten.
Which tells me that the majority of folks are just avoiding gluten because, well, the gluten-free marketing folks are just too good….
But not so good for your health
Gluten-free does not necessarily equal healthy. That’s because whole grains that contain gluten are a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
We have enough trouble getting enough fiber in our diets. The average daily intake in this country is about 16 grams… a far cry from the recommended 25 to 38 grams.1
On the flips side, gluten-free products are often made with refined grains, and are low in nutrients.
And it’s not just fiber these products are missing.
Very few gluten-free products are fortified and they’re often scant in vitamins and minerals including B vitamins, calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc and magnesium.
So the gluten-free fans are basically pulling nutrient-rich, whole grain foods from their diets and substituting them with gluten-free brownies.
Healthy? As if.
How Gluten-Free Makes You Gain
Good luck losing weight on a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free doesn’t mean fat-free or calorie-free.
In fact, without gluten to bind food together, food manufacturers often use more fat and sugar to make their products palatable.
So these sugary fat bombs are higher in calories than their regular counterparts. A gluten-free English muffin from Foods by George, for example, has 210 calories. Compare that to a good old Thomas’ Original English muffin at 120 calories.
Gluten-free may be tasty. But good for your waistline? No way.
It gets worse… To replace the wheat starch in packaged gluten-free foods, manufacturers use other starches that also have an even higher-glycemic index (which means they cause your blood sugar to rise rapidly).
These include cornstarch, rice starch, potato starch, and tapioca starch. These starches can just as easily spike your blood sugar.
What’s more, going gluten-free can put a serious damper on the variety of foods you can eat… sapping all the joy out of eating.
Breaking the Budget
One thing that will thin out when you go gluten-free? Your wallet.
Gluten-free foods, especially baked goods, are pricier because manufacturers have to come up with alternatives that will give the finished product the same firm, chewy texture that gluten imparts.
And this is big business.
Packaged Facts, a market research company, reported that the gluten-free market in the United States was up to $4.2 billion last year. And it predicts the category will balloon to over $6.6 billion by 2017. Holy gluten-free muffins, Batman!
Who Should Go Gluten-Free?
Of course, for those suffering from celiac disease, avoiding gluten is pretty much a no-brainer.
Eating even the tiniest amount damages the lining of the small intestine… This can lead to symptoms ranging from diarrhea to skin rashes to depression. And over the long term can lead to nutrient deficiencies and even intestinal cancer.
And some people have a condition called “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” where they experience similar symptoms to those with celiac disease but not the intestinal damage as seen in celiac disease. They should avoid gluten as well.
Even for these folks who MUST avoid gluten to stay healthy, the over-processed, gluten-free packaged foods that are filling store shelves are decidedly NOT a good thing.
All those empty calories with no nutritional value do little to nourish the body… and may lead to excess weight gain.
But before you go gluten-free
Get tested. If you suspect you truly have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, go to your family doctor or a gastroenterologist for an evaluation.
The test involves a simple blood test that can detect certain antibodies that are higher than normal. Your doctor may also want to do an endoscopy and biopsy of the small intestine.
If you don’t fall into one of those groups, save your money – and your health. Gluten is not the enemy. The real villain here is overprocessed foods with excess sugar, added fats and no nutritional value… Gluten or not.
Steve Sisskind, M.D.
Hi, I'm Dr. Steve Sisskind, Chief Medical Officer & Founder at RealDose Nutrition.
As a young physician, I struggled because my patients came to me with serious health issues, but I didn't have the right tools to help them. Medical school taught me how to put "band aids" on their symptoms with drugs and surgery, but not how to address the root causes of their problems.
Years later I discovered a better approach... based on the fundamental idea that the power of nutrition can transform your health and vitality. But there's a lot of confusion... What foods should I eat? Which supplements should I take? What does the science say?
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1. King DE, Mainous AG 3rd, Lambourne CA. Trends in dietary fiber intake in the United States, 1999-2008. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(5):642-648. PMID: 22709768.