Gluten Free Diet Myths
Gluten free diets have grown in popularity over the years. But with the added attention, comes plenty of misinformation. I want to address some of the common misconceptions and myths surrounding a gluten-free diet to help you sort through the noise so you can make educated and informed decisions.
Myth #1 – Gluten free diets cause malnutrition
There is a body of research that claims that eating a gluten free diet leads to malnourishment. One study found deficiencies in iron, calcium, zinc, selenium, and vitamins B12, C, and D. It also found that an excess of sugar and fat were being consumed. Another study identified evidence of poor vitamin status in celiac patients who were on a gluten-free diet for 10 years.
However, most of these research studies fail to differentiate between the types of foods people eat when they go gluten free. Concerns of malnutrition arise when those eating gluten-free diets rely on heavily processed and refined foods. This is often the case in newly-diagnosed celiac patients, or those accustomed to eating a diet rich in processed gluten-containing grains.
In other words, a diet lacking in gluten and grains is not the cause for malnutrition. Rather, the cause for malnutrition is a diet lacking in fresh, whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and properly raised animal meats. Think of it this way, a gluten-free donut and a pasture raised egg scramble made with fresh veggies are both gluten free breakfast options. Regularly eating one of these choices for breakfast will lead to malnourishment, the other will not.
One research paper acknowledges the difference between processed gluten-free foods and naturally gluten-free foods. The authors cite the drastic diet change that many newly diagnosed celiac patients must go through, and the challenges associated with quickly shifting to an unprocessed diet. The easiest transition for many newly-diagnosed patients is to simply shift to purchasing processed gluten-free foods. But as many gluten-containing products are required to be fortified with nutrients to ensure some base level of nutrition, processed gluten-free foods do not have these same requirements. Therefore, processed gluten-free foods that use alternative flours like tapioca starch, potato starch, and cassava flour are fairly devoid of nutrition and if they make up a large part of a person’s diet, can contribute to malnutrition. Ideally, a newly-diagnosed patient would shift to an unprocessed healthy whole foods diet, but making this change immediately can be dramatic. It does, however, prevent the risk of malnutrition.
The same study also notes that for many eating a grain/gluten heavy diet, suddenly removing gluten can eliminate a large portion of the prebiotic fiber found in grains from their diet. A sudden lack of prebiotic fiber can alter healthy bacteria levels in the gut, as a healthy microbiome relies on these prebiotics as a source of food. This change in bacteria can contribute to increased intestinal inflammation – not what we want! However, a healthy whole foods diet generally contains plenty of fiber in the form of fruits and vegetables that serves as ideal food for healthy bacteria in the gut.
While shifting to a healthy whole foods diet is an essential step in order to manage inflammation and rebuild a balanced non-inflammatory microbiome, it often requires working closely with a medical practitioner, nutritionist, or health coach to ensure nutrient and fiber needs are being met. In other words, the “easy” way to go gluten-free – by pulling products like chips, yogurt, and breakfast cereal off the shelf that claim to be gluten-free – can result in nutritional deficiencies and poor health outcomes. But a gluten-free diet doesn’t have to contribute to malnutrition, if one’s gluten free food choices revolve around real, whole, healthy food options.
On another note, grains contain a number of lectin compounds that can interfere with your ability to digest food and absorb minerals. Research has also suggested that lectins found in grains can contribute to disease by driving systemic inflammation in the body. Rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes are conditions linked to lectin exposure.
Myth #2 – Gluten free diets are only for those with celiac disease
While it might seem that only those with diagnosed celiac disease should eat a gluten-free diet, the truth is, many diseases are linked to gluten sensitivity, and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS). And for all of the skeptics, it should be known that NCGS has been formally acknowledged as a medical condition by scientists. In fact, research has shown that NCGS has an immune-related background. There is strong evidence that gluten may be the trigger for the inflammatory response that can lead to autoimmune disorders. The most common autoimmune conditions associated with non-celiac gluten sensitivity are Hashimoto thyroiditis, dermatitis herpetiformis, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Many grains are also genetically altered and have been sprayed with chemicals and pesticides and then processed with other additives and preservatives before they land on your plate. Thus making them a contributor to poor health even in those who don’t have celiac disease or NCGS.
Finally, if a member of your household must eat gluten-free for their health, it is helpful to avoid gluten alongside them. Not only does making your whole household gluten-free decrease the risk of cross-contamination, it is also a supportive way to share in their health journey and learn new ways to prepare healthy whole foods. Not to mention, you might be surprised at the ways in which you may benefit from removing processed grains from your diet, from better digestion and elimination to clearer skin and improved mental clarity and focus. It’s important to note, however, that if you are experiencing questionable health symptoms yourself, I suggest you seek out a practitioner that can help you get to the root cause of your concerns.
Myth #3 – Gluten free foods are healthier than their gluten containing counterparts
Just because a food is labeled gluten-free doesn’t mean that it is healthier than a similar gluten-containing counterpart. A processed food labeled gluten free is generally still junk food. But because the gluten-free label has developed a reputation for somehow being more health-conscious, it’s easy to be fooled.
Rather than seeking out foods with gluten-free labels, seek out healthy whole foods that don’t come with a laundry list of ingredients that you can’t pronounce or understand. Foods like fresh produce or pasture-raised eggs. Most food that is naturally gluten-free doesn’t come with a label and is a far better option than a product intended to mimic a gluten-containing counterpart.
Myth #4 A gluten free diet is a cure all for disease
The gluten-free diet has been praised for its ability to support overall health and digestion, but it’s not a cure-all for all disease — not even all digestive and gut health concerns. Different diseases have multiple different causes and contributing factors, and simply removing gluten may help with symptoms or severity, but not necessarily be a cure all for whatever ails you.
A gluten free diet is of pivotal importance to those with diagnosed celiac disease or those with non celiac gluten sensitivity, but it is important to test for these conditions before simply adopting the diet to avoid unnecessary diet restrictions and the social complications that can accompany them.
In addition, be aware that removing just the traditional gluten-free grains is not sufficient to avoid intestinal inflammation. As I mentioned earlier, all grains can be difficult to digest. In addition, recent studies have identified another group of components found in grains, known as ATI’s. This non-gluten related chemical is found in even gluten-free grains and activates a receptor inside human intestines that creates intestinal inflammation.
Another example is for people who may be experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms that are similar to those with celiac disease but also common in those with irritable bowel syndrome. For these individuals, removing gluten may not be sufficient, they may also need to remove fermentable oligo-di-mono-saccharides and polyols (FODMAPs) from their diet to find relief.
Don’t believe everything you hear
I hope this helps to clear up some of the misconceptions and myths you may have heard about gluten-free diets. Remember that gluten-free diets, when full of healthy, whole, unprocessed foods, are nourishing for all people, whether or not they have been diagnosed with celiac disease or NCGS. There’s simply nothing contained in grains that can’t be obtained in your diet by eating another less-processed food.