Meet the dietary demon du jour: gluten. This protein in wheat, barley and rye has become the new carb — just when bread was starting to make a comeback after the Atkins era.
Certainly, people with celiac disease need to strictly avoid gluten. For these individuals (1 out of 100 Americans) a gluten-free diet is far from a fad — it’s the only treatment. But the majority of folks filling up grocery carts with the vast array of gluten-free breads, cereal, pasta and processed foods do not have celiac. The newly devoted simply believe going without gluten is a healthier way to eat — even if they don’t know why.
Gluten has become a popular target of alternative health practitioners who are quick to recommend a gluten-free diet for whatever ails you. Many vegans and raw food enthusiasts have added gluten to their list of ingredients to avoid.
Giving up gluten has become a rallying cry on Web sites and blogs as a way to lose weight – especially for women over 40. But there is nothing inherent about a gluten-free diet that will enhance weight loss, unless it helps you get rid of the junk and eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains (such as brown rice and oatmeal) that are naturally gluten-free. You can easily gain weight on a gluten-free diet if you rely on a lot of highly refined gluten-free grain products. Many commercially prepared gluten-free baked items have twice the carbs and a lot of fat compared to their gluten-containing counterparts. That’s because when you take out the gluten you need the extra sugar or fat to get the right texture.
Even though these products are basking in the better-for-you spotlight, don’t think you’re enhancing your health by stocking up on packages of gluten-free muffins, cakes and cookies. Just because it’s gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s healthier. Gluten-free foods offer no specific advantages, beyond the benefits for people who are diagnosed with celiac. In fact, gluten-free foods are often nutritionally inferior.
Many commercially prepared gluten-free baked goods are made with refined flours and starches (rice, potato, etc.) that are low in fiber and protein, and do not contain iron, folic acid and other B vitamins that are routinely added to wheat flour. Because most gluten-free grain products are not enriched, people with celiac often have a hard time getting enough of these key nutrients. Several studies have shown that people following a gluten-free diet, especially when relying on commercially prepared gluten-free foods, have diets low in iron, fiber, B vitamins, calcium and vitamin D.
Fortunately, some manufacturers are beginning to use higher-fiber more nutritious grains such as quinoa, amaranth, teff and sorghum, and are starting to enrich gluten-free baked products with essential nutrients.
A gluten-free diet also can be expensive. Commercially prepared gluten-free products are about two to three times as expensive as their gluten-containing products.. During a trip to the Whole Foods Market in Chicago I found a package of gluten-free hamburger buns for $7.99 compared to $3.69 for a larger package of conventional hamburger buns (8 vs. 6 buns). For sandwich bread, you could buy a gluten-free white rice loaf for $4.39 or a larger loaf of gluten-containing multigrain bread for $3.69.
The glorification of gluten-free is a mixed blessing. On one hand it may encourage more people to get tested for celiac – which remains undiagnosed in about 97 percent of the people who have it in this country. A typical diagnosis takes an average of 11 years because the symptoms are either dismissed or mistaken for other conditions.
However, there’s a downside to the current fervor — it may make a proper diagnosis of celiac even trickier. Starting a gluten-free diet before being tested for celiac may cause the intestines to heal temporarily and an accurate diagnosis will be missed.
If celiac is ruled out, there is little to no evidence to indicate that gluten is a culprit. Even so, some people say they simply feel better by avoiding gluten.
It’s hard to argue with that, even without scientific support to explain why. The important thing to remember, though, if you choose to go gluten-free, you need to pay special attention to the nutritional adequacy of your diet. You can’t assume that you’re automatically eating better and improving your health by jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon.