Gluten-Free Diets: Useful Tools or Harmful Trend?

“Claims [about gluten-free diets] seem to increase daily, with no adequate scientific support to back them up. This clamor has increased and moved from the Internet to the popular press, where gluten has become the new diet villain.” — Celiac researchers Antonio Di Sabatino, MD, and Gino Roberto Corazza, MD, Annals of Internal Medicine

If you avoid gluten, you are far from alone. Research shows that about 25 percent of Americans avoid gluten and only 10 percent of people following gluten-free diets have a physiological need. In 2010, Americans spent $2.64 billion on gluten-free prepared foods. And gluten-free package claims have more than doubled since 2006. So it comes as no surprise that many health experts and food manufacturers are calling gluten-free diets the low-carb diet trend of the 21st century.

Any time we make a dramatic shift in our diets, we open ourselves up to potential risks and benefits. And since many gluten-free dieters have fallen pray to the mad marketing machine known as the diet industry—and we all know the risks dieting can pose—I couldn’t keep my mouth shut resist highlighting some vital information. Before making the decision to avoid gluten, unless you’ve been medically advised to do so, I feel there are several questions worth answering.

What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in grains, including wheat, barley and rye. It’s also prevalent in grain-based foods, like breads, cereals, crackers, cookies and cakes, and in less obvious foods and products, like soy sauce, meat marinades, malt vinegar and certain dietary supplements.

When does it cause problems?
While most people digest gluten with ease, your immune system sees it as toxic if you have celiac disease—an inherited autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine lining and disrupts nutrient absorption. It affects less than 1 percent of the population, according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, tends to run in families and can coexist with other diseases, like diabetes. Symptoms may include severe abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, anemia, joint pain, delayed growth (in children), skin rashes and unintentional weight loss. Treatment involves lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet.

Gluten sources also cause serious problems if you have a wheat allergy, which also triggers immune system reactions. Wheat is one of the eight most common diagnosed food allergies, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, which collectively affect about 2 percent of adults and 8 percent of children.

If you have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, a gluten-free diet is vital.

You can also have a gluten sensitivity, or “celiac lite.” In this case, your body reacts negatively to gluten, without any autoimmune reaction. Symptoms are similar to celiac disease, but milder: diarrhea, bloating, indigestion, fatigue and abdominal cramping.

Gluten sensitivity is tougher to pinpoint because many people claim to react adversely to gluten, but show no diagnosable symptoms. This doesn’t mean that the condition isn’t legitimate. Some thorough investigation, however, can help ensure that your nutritional needs are met and save you the time, money and stress that often accompanies gluten restriction.

Here are some examples of a misdiagnosed/misperceived gluten sensitivity:

  • You feel better after cutting gluten solely because you end up eating fewer processed foods.
  • Your “carb sensitivity” is actually a case of poor blood sugar control. (Carb sensitivity isn’t an actual condition; you can be sugar or insulin sensitive, but we all need more carbohydrates than any other macronutrient.)
  • The placebo effect: Believing we are doing something healthy for our bodies can go along way toward feeling better and vice versa; negative beliefs about foods can trigger physical symptoms. Put another way, fearing gluten can cause sensitivity symptoms.
  • You experience less gas and hunger after switching to a high-protein, low-carb gluten-free diet not because of you’ve eliminated gluten, but because starchy foods naturally cause gas during digestion—a normal/good thing—and because protein-rich foods are less likely to cause blood sugar spikes than, say, sugary sweets and breads.
  • You feel gassy and bloated after reintroducing grains into a grain-free or low-carb diet. This is not generally proof that your body is intolerant to gluten or grains. More often it’s a sign that you’ve been lacking fiber-rich, starchy foods. (To avoid this, gradually reintroduce grains and other fiber-rich foods. In healthy individuals, the digestive system readjusts.)
  • You follow the diet as a means of restricting your food intake, establishing a sense of control, as a coping mechanism for non-diet-related stress and/or to lose weight. These factors often reflect disordered eating: a range of disordered eating thoughts or behaviors not affiliated with a full-fledged eating disorder, like anorexia or bulimia. Though less life-threatening than eating disorders, it’s no way to live and no less worthy of addressing.

What are the benefits of a gluten-free diet?

  • If you are legitimately intolerant or sensitive to gluten, a gluten-free diet relieves most or all of your symptoms, leading to a comfier life. The diet that seems restrictive to many, brings freedom.
  • While the jury is still out and research mixed, some experts believe that avoiding gluten may benefit children with autism and other brain-related disorders.
  • If a GF diet heightens leads you to eat more nutritious foods in better balance, you’ll reap the benefits of most healthy diets: strong immune, brain and digestive function, improved energy, moods and sleep quality, healthy weight control and more.

What are the gluten-free diet risks?

  • Many people avoiding gluten avoid whole grains and other nutritious foods. This is a major reason many gluten-free diets often lack iron, calcium, B-vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate) and fiber. Many studies support this. Research published by the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, for example, showed that gluten-free diets worsened nutrient deficiencies in teens with and without celiac disease. Nutrient deficiencies* can cause a slew of complications, such as fatigue, muscle weakness, headaches, dizziness, weak bones, depressive moods, sleep problems, foggy thinking, dry skin, brittle hair and digestive problems.
  • If you replace gluten-containing foods with gluten-free substitutes, like GF breads, cakes, flours, cereals, chips and pancakes, you may spend a lot of money on products that are equally or less nutritious than the original. You may also find yourself buying and eating more chips, cakes and breads than you used to, simply because the “gluten-free” label leads you to believe it’s healthier. (Remember the fat-free days? Fat-free ice cream can seem so much healthier. It’s actually higher in sugar than conventional ice cream and more likely to trigger overeating.)
  • If your GF diet is also low in carbohydrates, you hold heightened risks for constipation, gallstones, kidney stones, bad breath, headaches, reduced metabolism, weight gain and ketoacidosis—a dangerous condition in which your body uses fat as energy.
  • Deprivation, frustration and surrender. A GF diet can be difficult to follow, particularly if many of your staple or favorite foods are eliminated and you lack the support of a qualified professional. You may feel deprived and frustrated and fall of the proverbial wagon, all of which increases your risk of binge eating, weight gain, poor body image, increased stress and depression, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

*Dietary supplements are a valuable option if you struggle with nutrient malabsorption, which is common with celiac disease, or can’t eat a healthy diet for other reasons. Otherwise, whole foods are your best bet.

So are gluten-free diets useful or a harmful trend? Both. I believe that GF-diets are a saving grace to people with a medical need and a potentially harmful—or at least needless—trend for others.

If you believe you have a gluten sensitivity, I recommend seeking guidance from a qualified health care professional, such as your physician, dietitian or gastroenterologist, who can conduct medical tests and guide you through an elimination diet, as needed.

I want you all to feel and be as healthy as possible while getting not only nutrients, but joy, from your food. Whether you avoid gluten or not, the following foods can help fill in the nutrient gaps common in GF lifestyles:

Calcium: Canned salmon, tuna and sardines, tofu, yogurt, fortified milk (rice, soy, cow’s, almond), kefir, kale, almonds
B-vitamins:  Fish, seafood, GF fortified corn/rice/oat cereals, eggs, lean meats, enriched long-grain rice, enriched GF breads and tortillas
Iron: Fish, seafood, lean meats, beans, lentils, beans, tofu
Fiber: Beans, lentils, chickpeas, green peas, sweet potatoes, skin-on baked potatoes, kale, broccoli, raspberries, popcorn, GF oatmeal, flaxseeds, prunes, pears

For more information, check out these fantastic resources:
Forbes Magazine: What We’re (Not) Eating: A Potential Danger of Gluten-Free
Today’s Dietitian: Putting the Healthy into Gluten-Free
MayoClinic.com: Food Sensitivity Vs. Intolerance: What’s the Difference?
EatingWell.com: Healthy Gluten-Free Lunch Recipes

Do you avoid gluten? What benefits or challenges have you faced? Do you see gluten-free diet popularity as a trend or progression in the nutritional world? I welcome your thoughts!

Why ‘Carb’ is Not a Cuss Word

“I hate you! You make me feel bad about myself! You’re such a….carb!”

If the word ‘carb’ carries a negative connotation for you, drawing up anxiety, frustration or shame, you’re not alone. Large-scale consumer research shows that roughly 25% of Americans are currently dieting. And low-carb, high-protein diets are among the most popular.

Before I explain why carbohydrates play a hugely important role in our diets, let’s examine why we’ve grown to detest the marvelous macronutrients in the first place:

1. Processed carbohydrate-rich foods, like cakes, cookies, candy, white bread and chips, are easy to overeat. (And trust me, commercial food makers know this.) Many are also low in vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber.

2. Overeating any food routinely causes the body to store excess energy as fat. So just as the dieting industry advised us to cut fat from our high-fat diets in the 90s, it advises us to cut carbs from our high-calorie, high-carb diets for weight control nowadays. Americans spend over $45 billion dollars on dieting each year. So it’s no surprise that messages of “low-carb” are widespread throughout the media.

Think about it. Why would an industry that profits on our inability to reach or maintain a healthy body weight promote a technique that works long-term? Hmm…

Low-Carb Diet Risks
Low-carb diets often trigger initial weight loss, in the form of water weight—not fat loss, or as a result of consuming fewer calories. Like other diets, low-carb diets have an extremely low long-term success rate. More often, they lead to weight gain, binge eating behaviors, and a significantly increased risk for obesity and obesity-related health problems, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, certain forms of cancer and heart disease.

Low-carb diets are typically high in protein and fat. Eating excessive amounts of protein or fat needs leads to weight gain. High-protein, low-carb diets also tend to lack fiber, which increases your risk for constipation, diverticulitis and other digestive problems.

Limiting carbs interferes with brain function. This is why psychologists have coined the term “Atkins attitude,” which refers to increased anger, frustration and depression among low-carb dieters, according to Judith Wurtman, the director of the Women’s Health Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Carbohydrates are the body’s and brain’s main fuel source. We need sufficient amounts to exercise, build and use muscles, think properly and sleep well. 

Carbs and the Brain
After we eat carbohydrates, they enter our bloodstream in the form of glucose. Because the brain doesn’t store glucose, it requires a steady supply from food. Once in the brain, glucose allows the brain to produce feel-good chemicals, like serotonin, which promotes positive moods. Carbohydrates also enhance memory skills…

In a study conducted at the University of Toronto, senior citizens were given a meal of cereal, milk and fruit juice for breakfast. Twenty minutes later, they showed significantly better memory function compared to senior citizens who did not consume the carbohydrate-rich meal.

Carbs and Muscles
Contrary to popular belief, amping up our protein intake and skimping on carbs does not facilitate muscle growth or toning. Our muscles rely on glycogen for fuel—a form of sugar that derives from carbohydrates. While building muscle, our protein needs bump up to 15 to 20 percent of our diets, according to the American Dietetic Association. No benefits have been shown by consuming more. Avoiding carbs, on the other hand, promotes early workout fatigue and lean tissue loss.

Healthy Carbs and Weight Control
Nutritious carbohydrate sources, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, are top sources of fiber. Fiber promotes fullness between meals and guards against obesity-related health risks. So it’s no surprise that many studies have linked diets rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables with positive, lasting weight control.

Simple Ways to Get the Most From Carbs

Choose whole over processed most of the time. For optimum health, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—a report based on loads of research and dietary expert insight, recommends eating at least three 1-oz servings of whole grains daily and making sure that at least half of your starches consist of whole grains.

Color your plates. (No, not with M&Ms…) Unlike added sugars, sugars that occur naturally in fruits, vegetables and other whole foods have a beneficial impact on blood sugar levels and overall health. To meet your basic vitamin and mineral needs, the ADA recommends eating at least 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables per day. For even more benefits, like a lowered risk for chronic disease, aim for 9+ collective servings.

Balance your plates. One super easy way to eat a great balance of nutrients is the “plate method.” Fill half of your plate with fruits and/or veggies, one-quarter with a lean protein source, like beans, fish or yogurt, and one-quarter with a complex starch, like whole grain bread, pasta or rice. Then add a bit of healthy fat. Healthy fat sources include olive oil, canola oil, nuts, seeds, avocados and fatty fish.

Enjoy treats in moderation. Cutting out all refined foods works for some people. But if you adore brownies, french fries, white bread or other low-nutrient foods, incorporating moderate amounts into your diet can stave off feelings of deprivation. To take your treat foods a nutritious step further, prepare them with whole ingredients. Make whole grain cookies and breads. Top your favorite ice cream with fresh berries. Or swap French fries out for baked sweet potatoes “fries.”

Some of my favorite, super-nutritious carbohydrate sources:
Fresh and frozen fruit
Fresh and frozen vegetables
Brown rice
Wild rice
Sweet potatoes, yams and squash
Beans and lentils
100% whole grain breads and tortillas (such as Ezekial brand)
Air-popped popcorn, seasoned with natural herbs
Oatmeal cookies with raisins or dark chocolate chips
100% whole grain cereals (such as Kashi)
Whole grain pasta (whole wheat, brown rice or spelt)
Old-fashioned or steel-cut oatmeal
Whole grain veggie pizza
Fruit-topped whole grain pancakes
Greek or organic/all-natural yogurt
Dark chocolate

So spill it! Are carbs your friends or enemies? What are you favorite sources? Any goals I can support you toward? I can’t wait to hear from you. :)

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