Gluten-free seems to be the new fad diet, but does it actually provide any benefits?
We are all starting to notice that grocery stores have more and more gluten-free options available. We have all heard of celebrities going gluten-free, but does going gluten-free really provide any benefits?
Mary Ryan, MS, RD, CD, is a registered dietitian with a Master of Science degree in food and nutrition and is a Certified Dietitian (MS, RD, CD) in the state of Washington. We had a chance to speak with her about going gluten-free.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in all types of wheat (including spelt), rye and barley. Ryan says that a gluten-free diet is the elimination of all forms of wheat, rye or barley and foods made with them. Since wheat is added to many processed foods, the complete elimination of gluten is difficult.
Why has Gluten-Free Become the New Fad Diet?
“It probably started with the recognition that Celiac Disease is more prevalent than previously thought,” Ryan says. Celiac Disease is an intolerance to gluten that causes a variety of symptoms, often gastrointestinal but many other symptoms have also been observed. People with Celiac Disease also often cut out oats due to possibility of cross contamination of oats in either fields if gluten-containing grains are grown nearby or in plants that process a mix of grains, she says.
“There are other people who do not have the disease but experience a range of gastrointestinal symptoms (gas, bloating, etc.) after eating wheat, but appear to be fine with other sources of gluten,” Ryan says. “In some cases, these people can tolerate some amount of wheat before the symptoms kick in and in other cases people develop symptoms with even small amounts.”
She also thinks the trend toward eating more whole foods has given support to the idea that because wheat and other grains were not part of “primitive” human diets we are somehow not adapted to eating them. The trend may also be yet another way to restrict carbohydrates.
Is Going Gluten-Free Healthier?
Ryan says not necessarily. If you have Celiac Disease or another form of gluten or wheat intolerance then yes.
If you don’t have one of these conditions however, simply eliminating gluten or wheat does not guarantee you will eat healthier. “In fact, eliminating all grains as many are doing now can lead to imbalanced eating, inadequate fiber and other micronutrients found in grains,” she warns.
“You will not convince me that eating a diet full of highly processed foods that happen to exclude gluten or wheat is superior nutritionally to a whole foods based diet that incorporates wheat or rye berries or other fiber and nutrient-rich forms of wheat, rye and barley.”
If you have no problem with gluten, then gluten-free isn’t likely to have any particular benefits unless it inspires you to eat more whole, nutrient-rich foods.
Why are Gluten-Free Foods Higher in Calories?
Gluten is an important protein in terms of texture for bread and other baked goods. Replacing gluten often requires a mix of different flours. Some of these flours are much higher in calories. Also, people tend to associate any food that is “good for you” with weight loss. “If it is fat free it must be better and help you lose weight. If it is gluten free and that’s the new popular way to eat it must help you lose weight. Neither of these assumptions are necessarily true,” Ryan says.
She says the gluten-free trend is a great example of our society’s desire for a “magic bullet” approach to healthier eating or the ability to blame some particular nutrient for our current problems with everything from overweight to cancer. "I stand by the sage advice: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Ryan currently works as a clinical dietitian in an outpatient eating disorders clinic in Bellevue, WA and is adjunct faculty at Bastyr University in the Nutrition and Exercise Science department. She also still has a nutrition counseling and education practice called Beyond Broccoli. To learn more about going gluten-free and more about Ryan visit her website at Beyond Broccoli.