The Final Verdict: If You can Tolerate Gluten, Should You go Gluten-Free?
More than half of gluten-free consumers don’t have a sensitivity to gluten and many are self-diagnosing, believing that gluten-free products will help them lose weight or feel better, even if they don’t experience digestive distress after eating wheat.
Do gluten-free diets lead to weight loss? Most experts say no. When manufacturers eliminate gluten from food, wheat flour is exchanged for a different type of flour, such as rice or bean. Gluten adds texture, but when that is removed, corn starch or xantham gum are added to give bread some shape. Gluten-free bread, for example, is often low in nutrients and supplemented with sugar and fat to enhance taste and softness.
Several prominent individuals have written and/or spoken extensively about issues surrounding wheat and gluten. Below are a few varied and sometimes conflicting viewpoints:
- Mark Hyman, MD, author of The Blood Sugar Solution, says that wheat (not just gluten) not only triggers weight gain but leads to the development of diabetes, heart disease, depression, and many other illnesses. He says that modern wheat contains a “Super Starch”, or amylopectin A, that is used to make fluffy breads, such as Cinnabons. What’s the big deal? “Two slices of whole wheat bread raise your blood sugar more than two tablespoons of table sugar,” which increases your risk of diabetes.
- Dr. Hyman and Dr. William Davis, authors of Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health, agree that wheat is addictive. Wheat proteins are digested into smaller proteins called ‘exorphins’, which “are like the endorphins you get from a runner’s high and bind to the opioid receptors in the brain, making you high and addicted”. (It should be noted here that wheat is not unique in this respect – foods such as milk, rice, and corn also contain exorphins.)
- Daniel Leffler, MD, Director of Clinical Research at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, says “the average American diet is deficient in fiber” and if whole wheat is removed from our diet, the problem worsens. Other grains such as quinoa or brown rice can provide us with the necessary fiber, but preparation of these grains often requires more effort.
- Alessio Fasano, MD, Director at the University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Research, says that we do not have the enzymes to properly digest gluten. Dr. Fasano believes that gluten triggers an immune response in everyone, which can lead to autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome.
- Katherine Tallmadge, RD, author of Diet Simple, says that if you don’t have celiac disease, don’t go for gluten-free foods because you will be missing out on fiber, iron, folate, niacin, calcium, and Vitamin B12, among vitamins.
- Donna Gates, creator of the Body Ecology Program for individuals with autism, advocates eliminating gluten from the diet as a means of treating autism. Some experts theorize that children with autism may have an allergy to foods with gluten or casein (found in milk and dairy products).
All of these views carry more significance if you think about how much wheat most Americans eat. Many eat a bagel or toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and bread or pasta (or both) for dinner. If you snack on cookies, cakes, or crackers in between meals, that’s a lot of wheat consumed in one day.
Keep in mind that gluten-free products such as cookies and cakes are still processed foods and, thus, higher in calories. Additional sugar in gluten-free bread and other products also means raising blood sugar and increasing the risk of diabetes. Processing and added sugar also result in a pricier product. It’s easy to pay more for something that isn’t very healthy, even if it’s gluten-free.
So now that you have the rundown on the major issues surrounding wheat and gluten…what’s a girl (or guy) to do? The bottom line is that you need to decide for yourself. If you want to experiment with eating healthier wheat and bake your own bread without additives, check your local area for farms that grow and grind organic wheat. Maybe the answer for you is to simply cut back on the amount of wheat you eat, but if you feel strongly about eliminating wheat and/or gluten from your diet, please talk to your doctor. It is also important to see a knowledgeable dietitian who can help you eat a balanced diet that has the fiber, vitamins, and minerals your body requires.
– Holly Hough, PhD
References: CBS News; Mail Online (the website for The Daily Mail, a UK newspaper); The Huffington Post; Authority Nutrition; Harvard Health Blog; Body Ecology; The Curious Coconut; US National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health; Kitchen Stewardship; Foundation for Alternative and Integrative Medicine; Scientific American; WebMD; Autism Speaks
Images by Flickr users elana’s pantry and Colin Dunn, via CC