In the fickle world of trendy diets, gluten-free has become the catchword of choice. There’s something inherently virtuous about giving up gluten, that key basis of carb heaven. But are you really better off forsaking gluten?
While it’s absolutely essential for the one percent of the population with celiac disease who can’t tolerate even microscopic amounts of gluten, or the other 18 million who have gluten sensitivity, that leaves the rest of us who make a personal choice to eat gluten free. While giving up gluten certainly won’t harm you, it’s also no guarantee of a more nutritious diet. Here’s a few myths about gluten that bear closer examination.
Gluten free is healthier
Now that gluten has become the bogyman, there seems to hover the tacit conviction that gluten and clean diets are mutually exclusive. If you don’t have celiac or gluten sensitivity however, gluten-free foods are not necessarily going to earn you a clean diet award (although they are invariably more expensive.) Gluten-free foods are often higher in fat and lower in B12, zinc, iron and folate. And typically, gluten-free foods are even more refined and processed than their gluten counterparts, which means less fiber. Sometimes, to make up for the less satisfying flavor profile, manufacturers increase the amount of sugar. Don’t fall prey to the illusion that the absence of gluten automatically boosts a food’s nutrition.
Gluten-free will help you lose weight
Perhaps the No. 1 myth regarding gluten is that is that banishing it from your diet leads to weight loss. If cutting out gluten translates into cutting out foods like bread, crackers, muffins, cookies, etc.—it could expedite weight loss. But the plethora of gluten-free alternatives available means giving up gluten is less about sacrifice and more about substitution. And substituting a gluten-free doughnut for a conventional one does not melt away pounds.
Nobody should eat gluten
If you are giving up gluten because of its checkered reputation in the nutrition world, you are probably jumping the gun. By banning gluten in allegiance to what’s trending, you say no to many nutritious foods such as the commonplace wheat, barley, and rye and the more exotic farro, kamut, and spelt. Essentially, you throw out the whole grain baby with the gluten-free bathwater. The many whole grains that contain gluten are rich in an array of nutrients, including B vitamins, antioxidants, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and fiber. Numerous studies show that whole grain foods, as part of a healthy diet, may help lower risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. They do a world of good for your bowels and colon. Casually shunning gluten can needlessly increase your risk of nutritional deficiencies—are you really on board for that?
It’s OK to self diagnose
So you think that gluten doesn’t agree with you—in fact you feel it in your gut. That’s all the say-so you need to enter the gluten-free fray. But a smarter approach than sheer intuition is a blood test to determine whether or not you have celiac disease. Your doctor can also perform additional tests, like a biopsy. If you do not test positive for celiac, you may have gluten sensitivity, but here’s the caveat—that’s a diagnosis that comes only when all other possible diagnoses have been ruled out and your doctor has determined that you can’t eat gluten. If further examination determines you have neither celiac nor gluten sensitivity, it’s still fine to cut some gluten out of your diet. Moderation in all things, whether it be gluten or gluten-free, isn’t a very flashy stance. But it may just be the most nutritionally sound.