Celiac Diseases

Beware the “benefits” of a gluten-free diet

JGH News, Summer 2014

For the past several years, going gluten-free has been the going thing. For some people, the reason is medical—for instance, they have Celiac disease or an intolerance to gluten, a protein composite in foods that are processed from wheat and related grain species, such as rye spelt and barley.

But that’s just a small part of the story. Gluten-free diets have really taken off, largely because of best-selling books—such as The Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis and Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter—that tout the alleged perils of gluten.

As a result, products modified to be gluten-free, unheard of just a few years ago, earn an estimated $6.2 million annually, and are regularly consumed by more than 15 per cent of North American households.

So are these foods right for you? Probably not. There’s still a fair amount of disagreement about voluntarily adopting a gluten-free lifestyle, but health experts generally believe that it’s best to avoid most products that are modified to be gluten-free.

To a large extent, they say, food companies are simply exploiting the trend by creating gluten-free versions of products that usually contain wheat, such as pizza crusts, breads and pastas. But that doesn’t necessarily mean these foods are healthier.

Angela Dease, a JGH dietitian, explains that companies swap wheat for tapioca flour, potato flour, rice flour, salt and sugar in order to stamp their products “gluten-free” and still make them taste good. What’s often overlooked is that these products also have more calories, sugar and fat than their gluten equivalents.

What Ms. Dease favours is naturally gluten-free foods, such as fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, beans, nuts, healthy fats and grains. She urges consumers to carefully read the list of ingredients before purchasing a product and, instead of worrying about gluten, focus on a healthy, balanced diet. Your best bet, she says, is to stay away from processed foods as much as possible, and to go back to the basics that existed before our food became a marketing game.

For more about  Celiac disease.

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