Gluten-free doesn't mean healthier for most

What’s All the Hype About?!                                                       

After all, one in three U.S. adults claim to have cut down on foods containing gluten or avoid it altogether.[i]

The “gluten-free” craze has taken the country by storm. From food labels to restaurant menus, “gluten-free” seems to be plastered on just about anything that’s marketable…and consumable. It’s so commonly displayed that you may have begun to think that “gluten-free” is synonymous with a healthier lifestyle.

But is this really the case? Is a gluten-free diet better for the general population, and should everyone exclude gluten from their diet?

No, not everyone, and in fact most people will not benefit from a gluten-free diet according to Registered Dietitian Debbie J., MS, RD.

“Allergies and certain medical conditions affecting a SMALL percentage of the population dictate that gluten (a wheat protein) be avoided.  For those of you who are curious about a gluten-free diet, it is important to understand that it is a diet based on a medical need. It is one of the newer diet crazes that may stem from a general misunderstanding of why a gluten-free diet is important, and who truly benefits from it,” Debbie said.

The fact is that only people celiac disease or a gluten allergy who have been diagnosed by a physician need to avoid eating foods containing gluten.

“Like ‘fat-free’ and ‘sugar-free,’ many people read this to mean the absence of gluten is healthier.  That’s not the case, and only those with celiac disease or diagnosed allergy need avoid gluten,” Debbie said.

Only about one in every 100 people in Europe and North America are affected by celiac disease.[ii] That means for the other ninety-nine percent of the people living in these areas a gluten-free diet is probably not necessary, nor healthier. In fact, there are zero nutritional benefits for a person who is not gluten sensitive to be on a gluten-free diet.[iii] If anything it will limit your food choices and make it more difficult to maintain a healthy and balanced diet.

But why are gluten-free diets so heavily marketed if they benefit so few? Gluten-free products are significantly more expensive than comparable products[iv] and due to the amount of misinformation out there, many people who are not afflicted with celiac disease or a gluten allergy continue to buy gluten-free despite the cost.

This has led to a large amount of companies focusing their marketing campaigns on the “gluten-free” craze.

“As gluten-free products made their way from specialty shops to chain grocery stores, the “gluten-free” term on product packages and shelf tags has abounded like a full-force marketing campaign,” Debbie said.

The bottom line is that unless you have celiac disease or a gluten allergy than you have no reason to fear the gluten monster. Instead, focus your efforts on staying active and eating a healthy balanced diet.

If you have not been diagnosed with celiac disease, it is not recommended that you follow a gluten-free diet. Contact your physician and meet with a Registered Dietitian if you are seeking a healthy and effective weight loss plan. If you suspect that you may have intolerance to gluten or have been diagnosed with celiac disease, contact your physician and meet with a Registered Dietitian to ensure that you are meeting all of your nutrition needs.[v]

If you know someone who has celiac disease or a gluten allergy you can better understand what they go through and help support them with the following information provided by Registered Dietitian Debbie M., MS, RD.

Who It’s For

When your body rejects or doesn’t tolerate gluten, it must be avoided in your diet…Period.  Management of both systemic and intestinal symptoms requires adopting a gluten-free diet.  Easier said than done, right?  A bit of education is in order to identify what foods are acceptable (see below).  One needs to be vocal at food establishments and social gatherings and very judicious as to his /her choices by reading every package/recipe available.  Lastly, shifting the focus to vegetable and protein-based entrées at meals may be in order.

Gluten-free Foods

Wheat, barley, rye and a cross-breed called triticale are out100% pure oats, corn, and rice are in.  As are eggs, poultry, fish, meat, milk, beans, potatoes, fresh fruit and vegetables, seeds and nuts in their original form (whole, unprocessed).  For those of you who are grain adventurous, try cooking quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat groats (kasha) or millet – you boil them like rice.  They can be used as hot starches with seasoning, or in cold salads with vegetables and herbs.

Sample meal:  all-vegetable salad with lemon juice or oil & vinegar; sans croutons/wontons. For your entrée you could have grilled meat or poultry without sauce and a baked potato with chives and pure butter.

Many people want a bread, bun, cracker or tortilla alternative.  So sticking to a corn or rice-based flour makes sense; however, processed foods from facilities that also process products containing gluten may contain the protein due to accidental cross-contamination*, just as using the same dishes or counter at your house could.  It is essential to read ingredients lists to select a cereal, cookie or noodle made from the acceptable grains mentioned above.  Often tapioca flour is added for texture; it is fine too.  Why not just look for the term “gluten-free?” Because there is no legal definition officially adopted yet by the FDA.   Testing for zero tolerance doesn’t exist as the technology isn’t readily available, so the FDA proposed a maximum threshold of 20 parts per million.  Even cold cuts, salad dressing, beer and licorice may contain traces of gluten.  At least food allergen labeling has come a long way, with packages required to clearly identify wheat on the label.

Additional Resources

Wonderful non-profit organizations hosting websites full of recipes and product lists include: National Foundation for Celiac Awareness  ; Gluten Intolerance Group; Celiac Disease Foundation, and Celiac Sprue Association  There is a wealth of gluten-free resources just from these groups alone.

For more great TOP TIPS be sure to come back every week and follow LIVING HEALTHY. To learn how, CLICK HERE.

*Celiac Disease:  Avoiding Gluten Cross-Contamination By Lauren Innocenzi, April 2013.  Web article



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