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Not All Gluten Free Foods Are Healthy

How many people do you know who are “gluten free”? Some people follow gluten free diets for health reasons – either because they have a sensitive digestive system or because they have a diagnosed Celiac disease. (For more on this topic, read our blog “What’s the Deal with Gluten Free?”) However, gluten free has also become a fad. One example is Miley Cyrus who lost a ton of weight in 2012 claiming a new gluten and dairy free diet. Not surprisingly, more and more foods are being packaged and advertised with the label “gluten free” – some of which are healthier options than others.

Gluten free is defined as avoiding foods that contain the substance “gluten.” Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat (wheatberries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, KAMUT® khorasan wheat and einkorn), rye, and barley. Gluten helps foods maintain their shape, acting as a glue that holds food together. Gluten can be found in many types of foods, even ones that would not be expected.

As a Functional Nutrition coach, I encourage a “gluten free” lifestyle by avoiding grain and starch based flours and focusing on whole foods. The unfortunate truth is that the new culture of gluten free pastries, cakes, crackers, cereals, and breads can be just as hard on your body as wheat. Why? Because the flours substituted in gluten free cooking are made by highly processed ingredients low in nutrients. Typically gluten free (not to be mistaken with grain free) flour used in cooking is made from extremely high carbohydrate starches: ground corn, potatoes, rice, and tapioca. Some are made with slightly better nutrient content like millet, oats, and sorghum. The problem with these flours is that the act of making a grain (or potato) into a flour makes them almost equal to sugar during digestion. Grinding starches into powder maximizes the food’s surface area, so your body absorbs the carbs all too quickly, giving your blood sugar a strong spike. Unfortunately just going “gluten free” while relying on a diet still rich in refined carbohydrates is not a quick health fix; and this kind of lifestyle could still leave you quite at risk for disease.

“Highly processed carbohydrate now comprises the most unhealthful component of the food supply,” says Dr. David Ludwig, MD, PHD, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Children’s Hospital Boston. “Americans consume more calories from refined grains and potatoes than from sugar … [and these] starchy foods like white bread, white rice, potato products, crackers and cookies digest quickly into glucose, raise insulin levels, program the body for excessive weight gain and increase risk for chronic disease.”

Here are my top 5 best tips if you want to stay on a healthy gluten free diet:

  1. Stick to a whole food diet based on unprocessed foods like vegetables, fish, and grass fed meats.
  2. Try going “flour free” for a few weeks and see if you can ditch the baked goods, crackers, and cereals forever.
  3. When you are craving carbs, stick to tubers and root veggies like carrots, turnips, and sweet potatoes (in moderation based on your physical activity levels and personal carbohydrate tolerance).
  4. When craving sweets try for herbal tea or the occasional square of really dark chocolate (70%+).
  5. Use high quality fats to help you feel full and satisfied.

If you are struggling with how to modify your diet and lifestyle because you are gluten intolerant, have celiac disease, or struggle with blood sugar or weight problems, consider booking an appointment to get a catered dietary approach. We currently offer a free 15-minute consult to see if our approach is right for you. For a deeper dive into the subject of carbohydrates and disease, please refer to our post on cholesterol and or recent post on cancer.