Are there any real benefits of a gluten free diet or is this just another fad? I never gave it much thought until several of my friends, over the past few months, announced they were avoiding wheat based products. Their comments included that they felt better or they were trying to lose weight. I began to think about it.
Some of the beliefs instilled in me growing up included:
- Anything whole wheat / multigrain is better that the white version.
- Natural food is always healthier than processed stuff and organic is superior.
- Pasta is packed with carbohydrates and calories.
It is good to re-examine our beliefs from time-to-time and ensure they best serve us. Of course, everything we hear in the media implies that our wheat and similar grains are genetically modified and are now, somehow, bad for us.
My diet is important to me and I was shocked with my initial research. US News reports an estimated 41% of Americans believe gluten free foods are beneficial for everyone and 30% of shoppers search for this option.
Why a Gluten Free Diet?
Gluten is the protein in flour used to make our breads, pastas, and baked goods. Also, it is found in many of our processed foods such as salad dressings, soups, deli meats and sauces. This diet eliminates all types of wheat, rye, and barley.
Under the Food and Drug Administration regulations, foods labeled as gluten free must contain no more than 20 ppm of gluten. This is important because a small percent of people require completely eliminating gluten from their diet. Approximately, 1% of the population are celiac, a hereditary autoimmune condition. The ingestion of gluten triggers an adverse reaction damaging intestinal cells which leads to serious health issues. An additional 6% of people have non-celiac gluten sensitivity and suffer similar symptoms. Finally, there are those with an extremely rare wheat allergy that must, also, avoid products with gluten.
According to Healthline, some symptoms of intolerance to wheat based products can include:
- Bloating - when your belly is swollen or full of gas after eating.
- Diarrhea or constipation on a regular basis.
- Abdominal pain is the most common symptom.
- Headaches and migraines for no apparent reason.
- Tiredness and fatigue after eating.
- Blistering skin condition called dermatitis herpetiformis.
- Joint and muscle pain.
Note: If you suffer from any of these symptoms and suspect you may have a gluten intolerance, see your doctor and get tested. It becomes very difficult to diagnose after you change your diet.
What are the Pros of a Gluten Free Diet?
Unlike many other proteins, gluten does not provide much nutritional value and is more difficult to digest. However, gluten protein is what adds the elasticity to dough to make it rise and keep its shape.
Is Gluten Free Healthier?
Without a doubt, if you are celiac or gluten sensitive, you will feel healthier after eliminating gluten from your diet. Interestingly, many people claim they feel better after changing their diet. In fact, a study by NCBI identified that 86% of individuals who believed themselves gluten intolerant were not. In other words, they convinced themselves that they feel better avoiding all wheat products.
The diet of people in Asian countries is predominately rice, vegetables, and fish - all gluten free choices. Many consider it to be a healthier diet than that of western countries. That being said, soy sauce does contain gluten and is the most common ingredient used in Asian cooking. And it is a big part of other sauces - hoisin, teriyaki, black bean and wasabi – to name only a few.
How Much Weight Can You Lose on a Gluten Free Diet?
When celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Miley Cyrus claim weight loss, you can bet people listen. Dr. William Davis, author of “Wheat Belly” further identifies overweight people will, routinely, lose 15 to 20 pounds during the first month of eliminating wheat (as well as other gluten containing grains such as rye and barley).
His explanation is that wheat-based products cause your blood sugar levels to rise. You feel hungry and eat a quick carbohydrate snack such as a muffin or cookie. Thus, stimulating your body to produce and release insulin. Over time, this results in the accumulation of fat around the abdomen or the “muffin top”. Dr. Davis believes that the removal of wheat products reduces these hunger pangs and spikes. Without these spikes, you eat less often and consume less calories.
“A wheat belly represents the accumulation of fat that results from years of consuming foods that trigger insulin, the hormone of fat storage."
Whether or not you lose weight on a gluten free diet depends upon all the changes you make to your diet. For instance, if all you do is switch to gluten free products, it is probable you will experience a reduction in nutritional value and, possibly, gain weight.
The process to remove gluten lowers the fiber, vitamins, and minerals in foods. To improve the taste and texture of these products fat, sugar, and sodium are often added increasing calories. Particularly, this is apparent in processed foods such as cookies, crackers, and snack bars.
On the other hand, making changes to your diet to incorporate more fruits, vegetables, and other naturally gluten free foods can help you lose weight. Also, substituting rice or rice noodles for pasta is a good way to reduce calories as well as gluten. Other excellent alternatives include grains and seeds such as quinoa and buckwheat.
What are the Cons of a Gluten Free Diet?
Growing up, we ate cereal and toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch at school, and, often, pasta for supper. Were our parents misinformed? Was this a bad thing? Actually, there is a lot of evidence to show that whole grains are good for us.
Can Going Gluten Free be Harmful?
Going gluten free is not, necessarily, harmful as long as you replace all the essential nutritional requirements. Specifically, fiber which is necessary for the digestive process.
Fiber and Gut Flora
Whole wheat products are high in fiber which is necessary for the bowels to work properly. In addition, many vegetables are good sources of fiber. According to Nutritional Facts, our entire gut flora system goes out of whack without enough fiber. Throughout evolution, our bodies received high fiber intakes and it is important to how we process food. Good bacteria is made from the fiber we eat. This produces signals to the body that they are there to support and protect the body. Therefore, this reduces the immune response. A low fiber level is interpreted by our body as bad bacteria taking over and becomes a signal to go on the inflammatory offense and attack.
Heart Healthy Benefits of Whole Grains
The average American needs to eat 30 grams of fiber per day for good health. However, they are eating only 15 grams – half the amount needed. According to NCBI, ensuring you have a high enough intake of fiber in your diet has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease in numerous studies. Research was conducted over many years. A Harvard study concluded that a "high total fiber consumption equated to a 40 percent lower risk of coronary disease in men”. In another study, NCBI received similar findings for women. In addition, metabolic syndrome risk - multiple factors that increase your risk for heart disease and diabetes - is decreased with an increase in dietary fiber. Fiber offers protection against the onset of this syndrome.
The BMJ study published in 2017 concludes that gluten is not, directly, a risk of heart disease. However, they also found that avoiding gluten by incorporating the gluten free diet, when you are without celiac disease, could increase your cardiovascular risks.
Gluten Free Products are More Expensive
With this progression to eliminating wheat based products, cost was bound to come into it at one point. On average, gluten free products are anywhere from 159% to 242% more expensive than normal brands. There is a process to refining something until it is totally gluten free. When they strip it out, something needs to replace it. Usually, it is replaced with sodium, sugar, or carbohydrates. So, you are paying more for the refining process, more calories and less nutrition. In some cases, like celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, there are no options. However, going gluten free "just because" could not only impact your health, it could adversely affect your wallet.
To summarize, a gluten free diet is critical for those with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity and wheat allergies (approximately 8% of the population). Additionally, it can provide relief for those with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s and colitis. For others, it becomes more of a lifestyle choice. It may help you lose weight and feel better with more energy.
On the other hand, you could be increasing your risk of heart disease through lack of enough fiber and nutrients from the foods you eat. It is recommended that if you suspect you have a gluten sensitivity, check with your doctor. This lifestyle choice should not be made lightly.
Hopefully, this article has provided some facts that will assist you in making an informed decision.