Myth: Gluten-Free Foods Are Healthy

I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for a while, so please let me know what you think.

I’ll start with two myths from an article I just read called 5 Biggest Gluten-free Myths

“Myth: Gluten-free foods are healthy.” The truth is that foods labeled “gluten free” often contain more sugar and carbohydrate than their gluten-containing counterparts.

“Myth: A gluten-free diet will help you lose weight.” The truth is that swapping out foods for their gluten-free counterparts will often result in weight gain.

Now, let’s back up to the start…

What is gluten? Gluten is a protein in wheat and some other grains. It is often purified out of wheat and used as the protein base for imitation meats. This process is as easy as running water through wheat flour…the water carries away the starch, leaving behind the firm and stretchy gluten. Gluten is often called seitan, wheat meat, mock duck, and other names. You can lean more by typing “gluten” into google.

Here’s my take on the health-status of gluten: gluten is probably healthiest part of wheat for most people…unless you are intolerant or allergic. I say this because I’ve seen strong evidence that the non-gluten, carbohydrate portion of wheat plays a causal role in the “metabolic syndrome” collection of obesity and diseases. While this isn’t a scientific certainty, there’s a strong case.

Who is gluten bad for? About 1 in 133 people have an adverse reaction to gluten, where the lining of the small intestine is prevented from absorbing important nutrients–this adverse reaction is called celiac disease. There are also people who speculate that some additional percentage of people without celiac disease have milder negative reactions to gluten. Just as people allergic to shellfish shouldn’t each shellfish, people with celiac disease shouldn’t eat gluten. But equally, just as a “shellfish-free” diet isn’t healthier for those not allergic, neither is a gluten-free diet healthier for people who aren’t sensitive to gluten.

Here’s my stance: Since I don’t have celiac disease (as around 99.3% of people don’t), I don’t try to avoid gluten. If you don’t have gluten intolerance, the current evidence is that you don’t need to worry about gluten.

Now, it’s a basically moot point for me because I limit my carbohydrate consumption (including grains: breads, pastas, and flours), so I end up consuming very little gluten–for reasons that have nothing to do with avoiding gluten. If I had celiac disease, I’d need to worry about the small amounts of these foods that I do eat and also about the trace amounts of gluten in various other foods. But I don’t. And most people don’t.

So, what should we do to be healthier and lose weight, if eliminating gluten is probably irrelevant?

There is a strong case that we derive significant hormonal benefits by minimizing consumption of carbohydrates–including wheat, grains, and sugars. These hormonal benefits result in easier fat burning, better energy levels, reduced hunger, lowered risk of various major diseases, and a generally higher quality of life.

Sure, avoiding grains will mostly eliminate gluten from an average diet, so from one perspective this can look like a low-gluten diet. But current science suggests that carbohydrates are the key issue, and the protein gluten is basically an “innocent bystander.” Some people who cut out gluten will lower their carbohydrate intake and experience great benefits from the carbohydrate lowering. Other people make “gluten-free” choices that are not only more expensive, but that actually raise their carbohydrate intake and are counter-productive to their goals and their quality of life. Many “gluten-free” options increase carbohydrate and sugar intake and are only worthwhile if you must avoid gluten; otherwise they bring net adverse health effects.

If you unnecessarily focus on avoiding gluten, the deck is stacked against you–for it is precisely the most tempting gluten-free options that are the worst trade-offs. A prime example is desserts: if you eat a gluten-free dessert because you think it’s a little healthier, there’s a strong likelihood that it contains more sugar and carbohydrates and is actually nutritionally a little worse than a gluten-containing dessert of the same type. If you don’t need to worry about gluten, ignore the gluten content of foods and focus on the carbohydrate content, instead. In other words, go directly at the high-percentage issue: the carbohydrate content…and avoid the non-essential issue of gluten.

I’ll repeat one final time that if you’re one of the few who is intolerant to gluten, of course gluten avoidance is an essential issue for you. And if you are gluten intolerant but also have other weight and health goals, then it will pay to combine eliminating gluten with an awareness of the sugar and carbohydrate levels in the foods you’re eating…and be aware that some of the gluten-free options will have a negative impact on your other goals.

“Gluten-free” has become a trendy topic recently, and I’ve looked into it a lot and discussed it with many concerned clients. I hope I’ve been able to give you more perspective on what gluten is–and one less thing to wonder and worry about.

To health and life,

Chad

P.S. If you need a more personal analysis of how to adjust your health and fitness routines to achieve your goals as directly as possible, just contact me through the webform on the link at the bottom of this page.

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