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When a Gluten-Free Diet Isn't Healthier
"I'm avoiding gluten for a couple weeks for health reasons," says a friend of a friend at a party. I dare not ask how her health "reasons" will disappear 14 days from now. She's not the only one I know going gluten-free in the absence of a clinically diagnosed gluten allergy or sensitivity. Clearly her time limit means she's making a personal choice. Nothing wrong with that for restaurants, as GrubHub just released new numbers that gluten-free takeout orders are up by 60% year over year. Traditional foods that contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and sometimes oats, are getting a gluten-free makeover to keep up with demand. While this variety is a major plus for those with Celiac disease, gluten-free foods don't live up to the health halo that has us all flocking to the gluten-free menu. The truth is gluten-free replacements aren't necessarily healthier.
The Low-Calorie Myth
In the August 2012 Packaged Facts consumer survey, 27% of respondents believed that gluten-free products could help manage their weight. A separate set of American consumers told Nielsen that gluten-free foods have less calories than traditionally-prepared baked goods. But the opposite is often true. Case in point, Dunkin' Donuts recently released news that they would sell gluten-free versions of donuts and muffins. Their gluten free cinnamon-sugar donuts will have 60 more calories than a regular glazed donut. In general though, many gluten-free versions of bread, cereals, and snacks are comparable calorie-wise to their traditional options. For example Canyon Bakehouse 7-Grain Bread has 8 more calories than Roman Meal All-Natural 12-grain bread per serving.
The Low-Carb Myth
Another misconception revealed in the Packaged Facts survey was the belief that gluten-free products are low-carb. But, here's the truth. In place of gluten containing products, many gluten-free foods are made with rice flour, potato starch, and corn products among other items. Corn, rice, and potatoes are hardly low-carb options. Perhaps what's really happening is that people on gluten-free diets are more conscious of what they’re eating. Therefore, when they do cut out certain high-calorie gluten containing foods like pasta and bread, they may have a more well-rounded diet that includes more fruit and vegetables.
The “Healthier” Truth
The biggest motivator of those who choose to go gluten-free is the notion that they are “generally healthier.” But, if you can’t cut calories or save on carbs, what makes going gluten-free healthier? For those with gluten sensitivity and Celiac disease, gluten-free products are a necessity for health, but for all others, there are some things you give up when you go gluten-free that aren’t so good for you. Here are a few things to consider about gluten-free products:
The ingredients that replace gluten-containing foods may be lower in fiber as many are made with refined, highly processed ingredients. To maintain taste, more fat and sugar may also be added to certain foods as well.
No Fortified Vitamins and Minerals
Wheat flour is generally fortified with iron and B-vitamins, but gluten-free substitutions are generally not fortified. Also, whole grains that contain gluten have more nutritional value than the highly processed ingredients used in gluten-free products.
Be on the look out for healthier options to the foods you love, but don’t think it can be found in gluten-free products alone. Eating healthier foods means eating more nutrient-dense and less empty calories such as those high in fat and sugar. Bottom line, getting enough fiber, vitamins and minerals, and lean proteins, can be done without going gluten-free.
If you're gluten-free, what was your initial reason for making the switch?