Reader Question: Is “Gluten-Free” Healthier????
Happy Thursday Y’all! So – I got a question from a reader the other day and she asked: “What’s the best decision for someone who doesn’t have celiac disease: whole wheat or gluten-free? And why?”
That is a GREAT question and I’m sure there are many others out there who are wondering what all this “gluten-free” stuff is really about. If you haven’t noticed lately, it seems as if there is a gluten-free “trend” going on. As a result, many people in the food industry are jumping on the bandwagon and making BIG gluten-free claims on their packaging (hopefully it really is gluten-free…but that’s a topic for another blog). You can’t go in to a store these days without seeing at least a few products, if not AISLES of products, all claiming “GLUTEN FREE!”. Now, for people like me who have celiac disease, this is exciting. Having gluten free options for foods that you usually can’t eat without getting horrifically sick makes you feel normal!! But are these “gluten free” options “healthy”?? First let’s just get it out there that I don’t like to classify foods as “good” or “bad” – what you choose to eat or not eat does not make you better, holier, or more morally right as a human being. However, there are certain foods that work better with your body than others, and those foods will differ depending on you and your body. With that in mind let’s discuss 2 topics: 1) why someone WITHOUT celiac disease may want to avoid wheat/gluten and 2) just because a food is “gluten-free” doesn’t automatically make it a nutritious food.
So why is the gluten-free trend occurring anyways?? First of all, it seems that more and more people are getting diagnosed with celiac disease. What was once passed off as IBS (or other digestive ailments) is now, many times, being recognized as celiac. What is celiac disease you ask? Long story short (and I am going to vastly over-simplify things –so keep that in mind) celiac is an auto-immune response to gluten. Gluten is the sticky protein found in wheat, rye, and barley that allows baked goods to keep their structure and shape. When someone who has celiac ingests this protein, the body looks at it as an invader and attacks it – producing all those wonderful side effects of the attack (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.) and worst of all it actually destroys the villi of your intestines (which are responsible for absorbing the nutrients in the food that you eat) – meaning after a while you won’t be absorbing nutrients from your food (not to mention literally destroying your body). BIG reason to avoid gluten if you have celiac!! SO – why would you want to avoid gluten if you do NOT have celiac?? Well – many people are “intolerant” to gluten, but don’t necessarily have full-blown celiac disease. If you are intolerant to gluten, it means that your body has trouble breaking it down causing unpleasant symptoms (bloating, constipation, etc.) but is probably not causing damage to the intestines (although that’s debatable because if you are chronically eating something that you are intolerant to, your body will likely be in a state of chronic low-grade inflammation, which isn’t really a “good” thing). In my opinion, the majority of human beings have trouble breaking down gluten (which will likely, eventually lead to at least a mild intolerance) and here’s why:
Gluten contains enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid, which block the absorption of minerals in the body and makes it difficult to digest. In fact, most grains contain these enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid (it’s a survival mechanism for the plant). Because of this, eating gluten (or other grains) on a regular basis – EVEN IF you are not intolerant – can lead to mineral deficiencies, bone loss, digestive illness, IBS, etc. Soaking and sprouting the grains (for example, products like “Ezekiel bread”) is thought to alleviate some of this by inactivating the enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid. But this won’t help out if you have any intolerances to these grains (which will, as mentioned before, lead to chronic inflammation, which in turn could lead to – at the very least of your worries – weight gain!) So, it may just be easier to avoid gluten and grains altogether (depending on your goals). Here’s an article from Marks Daily Apple that explains a little more about why you may want to consider avoiding gluten, and really all grains, if you’re trying to optimize your health.
Now in terms of “gluten-free” substitutes….are they “better” than whole-wheat food products? Well….not necessarily. Just because something is “gluten free” doesn’t mean it will offer any benefit to your body in terms of nutrition. A gluten free cookie is probably not any more nutritious for your body than a regular cookie; it’s just not likely to cause an immune response in people with celiac disease. It is, however, likely to still contain a lot of sugar, some other “non-gluten-grain” flour, and perhaps even some artificial colors and flavors. So what does this all mean??? Well you can take it however you would like! In my opinion, foods made with gluten and other grains (like bread, cake, cookies, cupcakes, and other baked goods) can be really FUN to eat! They are meant to be enjoyed and to have fun with! However, if you think you are eating them for your body’s sake, well you may want to think again. Your body doesn’t have any need for gluten or other grains (including the “healthy” whole grains). SO it all depends on what YOU are looking for! If you want to “lean” out or optimize your health, then avoiding gluten and grains is a good idea. If you want to enjoy the simple pleasures of a nice piece of bread or a delicious cupcake – then go ahead and enjoy!! That’s what they are for! You don’t have to eat foods SIMPLY for the nutritional value – you can totally eat something for the simple sake of eating and enjoying it! What I find to work best for me – is a balance of the 2. Eating primarily for health and nutrition, but also enjoying life and partaking in consumption of “fun” foods. Lucky for me, a lot of the foods that I enjoy are healthy for my body AND I think they are fun to eat (and other foods, like Cadbury Eggs, I eat for the simple joy of it). Find what works for YOU and what makes YOU feel best!! If you’re having digestion problems or other bodily ailments that you can’t quite figure out – try taking away gluten and other grains for 3-4 weeks and see how you feel!! Adding challenges to your life are not only good for the body, but good for the mind too!! Shake things up!!
So – that is my “take” on gluten-free eating. I hope this helps!! If anyone has any questions AT ALL please feel free to post questions on our blog or on facebook. We really want to provide content that YOU want to see/read about…and not just what WE THINK you want.
That’s all for now! Until next time…keep listening to your bodies!!