So is gluten-free really a “fad diet”, as some suggest? Will it result in Vitamin B deficiencies and fiber-deficient meals? Should a gluten-free diet only be followed by people who have been diagnosed with celiac disease? These are common questions among those in the nutrition arena. We have some thoughtful answers.
Is Gluten Dangerous?
Gluten, and grain-based carbs in general, have been accused of contributing to dementia, decreased libido, depression, chronic headaches, anxiety, epilepsy, and ADHD. This is the conclusion of Dr. David Perlmutter whose best seller, Grain Brain, is a scathing indictment of the dietary effects of most grains. Perlmutter is among the more high-profile shooters at gluten, but he’s hardly alone. Promoters of the Paleo Diet also point an accusatory finger at grains. Dr. Loren Cordain has spent almost thirty years documenting the damage done by wheat to the human body. The most serious form of allergy to gluten; celiac disease, affects one in 100 people, or three million Americans. But milder forms of gluten sensitivity are even more common and may affect up to one-third of the American population, according to Dr. Mark Hyman. The New England Journal of Medicine identified 55 “diseases” associated with a gluten allergy, including osteoporosis, irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, anemia, cancer, fatigue, canker sores, (v) and rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and almost all other autoimmune diseases. Gluten is also linked to many psychiatric (vi) and neurological diseases, including anxiety, depression, (vii) schizophrenia, (viii) dementia, (ix) migraines, epilepsy, and neuropathy (nerve damage).
Science remains skeptical, as is its role. Dr. James Hamblin recently authored an article in The Atlantic, in which he challenges the scientific basis for Perlmutter’s conclusions. Due to the absence of rigorous testing, it isn’t too difficult to challenge Perlmutter’s thesis. But while science is right to be asking the questions, too many people who are experimenting with diet and lifestyle changes are finding very clear answers.
Will a Gluten-Free Diet Harm You?
Possibly, if you do it wrong. Fortunately, it’s not hard to do correctly. The first thing worth doing is to eliminate gluten from your diet for 30 days. See how you feel. If you are feeling more energy, clearer thinking and less abdominal discomfort, then a gluten-free diet may serve you well. If you aren’t feeling appreciably better, then perhaps its not suited for your body.
During your 30-day hiatus, throw in just 30 minutes of exercise a day to round out any major lifestyle changes you need to make to fully enjoy life. Again, science may not subscribed, but some interval training and daily exercise will make a dramatic difference. “Exercise is the best preventive drug we have, and everybody needs to take that medicine,” says more than just one doctor.
If you decide that you want to continue the gluten-free experience here are a few pitfalls to watch out for:
- Wheat is a good source of Vitamin B6, folate, carbohydrates, niacin (Vitamin B3), zinc and fiber. You’ve got to make sure you make up for those nutrients. Fortunately, it’s not hard. Brown rice, dried beans, lentils and quinoa are affordable and healthful substitutes, as are most green or orange vegetables.
- Some opt to replace breads, pastas and desserts (which are mostly full of gluten) with gluten-free alternatives. We recommend against that. One of the benefits of a gluten-free diet is you are cutting out empty calories from your diet. Corn tortillas, lettuce-wraps and brown rice are excellent substitutes for all of those gluten-laden goodies. And a piece of dark chocolate will soon become much more satisfying than cakes and pies.
- Iron is an essential ingredient that you shouldn’t overlook.
- If you substitute wheat flour for whole foods, such as
What Are Some Proven Benefits of a Gluten-Free Diet?
Proponents of gluten-free lifestyles claim weight-loss, overall improved health, better gut functions and uptick in athletic performance. Sadly, there aren’t any long-term studies that have documented these benefits. But, in one respect, the studies aren’t that important. By going gluten-free smartly, you are going to find that you’ve cut out sugar and empty carbs that don’t do your body any favors. Refined sugar, alone, is one of the worst substances for your body. In lab tests, refined sugar has been found to be more addicting than cocaine. Eliminating pastries and deserts will go a long way to reducing sugar addictions.
You’ll also find yourself gravitating away from processed foods because there is so much gluten added to most processed foods. Beer, candies, breakfast cereals, granola, french fries, gravies, imitation meats & seafood, salad dressings, rich sauces, snack foods and soups are all souped-up with gluten ingredients. By adopting a gluten-free diet, you’ll find yourself eating more whole foods, and you’ll feel better without the salts, nitrates, gums, stabilizers and other chemicals that pollute most processed foods.
Finally, by reducing processed foods, you’ll find yourself spending less money on food and your health. Gram for gram, processed foods generally cost more. You’ll find yourself spending more of your money on fresh veggies rather than expensive breads, desserts and pastas. Plus, real food costs less in the long run because it’s more likely to keep you healthy, minimizing your medical costs.
So it is true that scientific studies don’t support many of the claimed benefits of gluten? Yeah, probably. But common sense, and signals sent to you by your own body, should tell you all you need to know about your dietary choices.