Is A Gluten-Free Diet Unhealthy?

There is no doubt that the gluten-free diet is trendy in some circles. And with every trend, there must come a backlash. Experts (and I use the term extremely loosely) opine. Other (loosely-defined) experts counter. And so it goes.

Unless you are celiac, or fall on the celiac spectrum (which includes various types of gluten intolerance), you do not have to be gluten free. As I discussed in a previous piece, many people have a gluten-free diet recommended to them to deal with inflammation issues. The caveats I noted still apply.

If you feel better being gluten free, I say more power to you. The more I pay close attention to what I eat and how it impacts me, the more I realize the impacts certain foods have on my overall feeling of well-being. This includes bloating, energy levels, and overall feeling of being well-fed. Unless your diet is completely unhealthy, I believe what works for you, works for you.

Recently, I read an article by a doctor and gluten-free expert — and since Dr. Peter Green is the director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, I think he qualifies — that struck me wrong. I’m not saying he’s incorrect, but I take exception with this comment:

The GF diet is typically low in fiber, iron, B vitamins (including folate, which is essential for brain development, producing healthy red blood cells, and preventing anemia) and other essential minerals. It is high in sugar, salt, and fat. Gluten-free breads, cereals, cookies, cakes, and snacks are bound with excess fat—gluten is the “glue” that holds breads and cakes together—and flavored with excess sugar and salt to make them as tasty as their wheat-filled counterparts.

On the other hand, wheat, rye, and barley are vitamin- and fiber-filled grains. Manufacturers also regularly fortify wheat flours as well as the cereals, breads, and other processed products made from them with the vitamins and minerals that might have been removed during processing. Gluten-free foods, with a few exceptions, have not caught up with this fortification.

Yes, the second paragraph is accurate. But the first sentence bothers me. The gluten-free diet is only low in nutrients because so many of us try to recreate our former diets by indulging in low-nutrient rich foods like, oh, gluten-free breads, pastries, and more. These are not essential parts of a gluten-free diet, and I strongly believe we, as a community, need to break the cycle of dependence on foods that are unhealthy.

If you pay attention the gluten-free community, particularly the online version of it, you cannot help but walk away with the sense that all we do is spend hours in our kitchens trying to recreate pancakes, waffles, breads, muffins, cakes, cupcakes, brownies, cookies, and just about every food that has a wheat-related relative.

It is no wonder that even the experts believe the gluten-free diets is unhealthy. Our community reinforces this opinion constantly. When I’ve attended the Gluten-Free Expo that accompanies the Celiac Disease Foundation‘s annual conference, I see a whole lot of vendors selling me products that are, honestly, quite unhealthy. Many are tasty, many are innovative, but very few of them are healthy. And I can’t think of any that focus on naturally gluten-free foods.

Getting back to Dr. Green’s comments, there are so many gluten-free foods that meet your needs with regard to B vitamins, including folate: spinach, broccoli, lentils, beets, bell peppers, fish, beef liver (not my personal fave…), asparagus, even parsley. Not one of these foods contains gluten, and all of these foods are easily worked into a gluten-free diet.

Adding fiber to your diets is just as simple. Pulses, which I wrote about recently, are amazing sources of fiber, and they are incredibly versatile. And, ahem, naturally gluten free. Broccoli, fruits and berries, Brussels sprouts, avocados, oatmeal, buckwheat, quinoa. I think you get my point.

As for the gluten-free diet being high in sugar, salt, and fat, well, that is a consumer making bad choices. I’d argue that consumer would be making those same choices whether or not she is gluten free. These factors are not an inherent part of a gluten-free diet; they are a consequence of bad nutritional choices made by people.

I am personally fighting this element of our diet because I am terrified by the increase of diabetes in our society — this isn’t an American phenomenon, and it’s almost entirely diet-related. We know we can reduce and/or eliminate a wide number of diseases by changing how we eat (and, ahem, increasing exercise, reducing alcohol, getting enough sleep, and managing stress better).

The gluten-free diet is not inherently unhealthy — the unhealthy aspect comes from the way many of us choose to practice that diet. You can be gluten free and get a full complement of your dietary needs. Or you can eat those foods that low in nutrition, high in salt, fat, and sugar. These are choices you get to make.

Dr. Green’s article is worth reading, especially if you are gluten free by choice, not necessity, but what’s really important is that you have the power to make your diet healthy and diverse. Use this power wisely….

Tip of the Week

Read labels. For example, Barilla Gluten-Free Rotini has 4.0 g of protein and 1 gram of fiber. Banza’s Rotini past has 14 grams of protein and 8 grams of dietary fiber. Barilla’s product is excellent — it holds it shape if you should overcook a minute or two, unlike many gluten-free pastas — while Banza’s chickpea base may be too intense for some. As you make your shopping decisions, focus on the whole package, not just the gluten-free label.

Gluten-Free Meal of the Week

I will confess to a bit of overindulgence over the past week. I enjoyed a few too many Blue Diamond nut crackers, and I couldn’t resist a gluten-free cheese and bacon tater tot appetizer when I went out with friends. Plus maybe one of those meals was accompanied by more wine than I normally drink.

This means a good, filling vegetarian meal with lots of fiber from broccoli and beans. Plus, ahem, a bit of goat cheese left over from our backyard barbecue with friends (I am proud to say that I didn’t polish it off with the crackers!). This is a perfect, meatless option…did I mention I had steak, chicken, salmon, and more over the weekend? It was fun to eat such great variety, but my body is begging for relief!).

Oh, this technically constitutes a salad because of the dressing. Feeling rather virtuous here.

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