I sincerely enjoyed the report that came out by Consumer Reports late last week. It took a balanced look at the gluten free diet, who uses the diet, the expense and nutrition of it as well.
But over the weekend some media took it and ran with it. “Gluten Free: Doctors warn of risks”, “Can gluten free actually be bad for you?”, “Gluten-Free Diet not without risks.” While there were some more balanced reports out there as well, these negative headlines had me thinking…
Would I describe a gluten-free diet as a risky? No. Granted I am biased because I have three people in my family who do just fine on the diet. But I can think of many other risky behaviors out there, smoking, drugs, riding a motorcycle without a helmet, not wearing a seat belt in the car, and drinking too much alcohol.
In the case with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity or another gluten-related disorder, there isn’t a choice but to be gluten-free in order to be healthy. In fact, doctors have said for a long time, the only people who should really do a gluten-free are those with a gluten-related diagnosis. But that isn’t stopping people. Roughly about a third of the respondents in Consumer Reports study said “they buy gluten free products or try to cut out gluten”, which is in line with recent reports. Only a fraction of those folks must eat gluten free because of a diagnosis.
The Consumer Reports article cited 6 reasons why gluten free “might not be a good idea”:
- Gluten free isn’t more nutritious (and may be less so)
- You will probably increase your exposure to arsenic
- You might gain weight
- You’ll pay more
- You might miss a serious health condition
- You might still be eating gluten anyway
At one time or another, I have written about all of these on this website. These points are absolutely all true.
Turning gluten free diet concerns in to a healthy lifestyle
With the weekend headlines out there, I just want to remind the gluten-free community, anyone newly diagnosed with a gluten-related disorder, or someone who still wants to be gluten free as a lifestyle choice — do not dismay. Whatever your reason — being healthy and gluten free is doable!
Now that you know about some of the concerns with the gluten free diet, let’s ease those concerns by turning the aforementioned points from Consumer Reports into positives:
- Make your diet more nutritious! Gluten free can be low in vitamin B, folic acid, iron, fiber and protein (in particular). Some people with celiac disease are low in vitamin D too. Because you are removing the fortified cereals and breads from your diet, you need to find the nutrients elsewhere. Most processed gluten-free products are not going to be the answer. WebMD had a great list of food sources for good nutrition. Please keep in mind it is not a gluten-free listing, so when it mentions whole grains– you should be thinking about sorghum, quinoa, gluten-free oats, teff, etc. And when it mentions oats, you should be thinking about gluten-free oats.
B vitamins: You can find different B vitamins in a lot of foods, from chicken and fish to chickpeas and potatoes
Folic Acid: Dark leafy green vegetables
Iron: Beans, lentils, beef, turkey (dark meat). The University of Chicago also adds: liver, fish including clams, mussels and oysters to the list.
Fiber: CeliacDisease.about.com had a great article on ideas for fiber intake for gluten-free eaters. The options span from chickpeas to almonds and even high-fiber gluten-free grains like gluten-free oats (if tolerated), buckwheat, millet and amaranth.
Protein: Meat, poultry, fish, nuts and seeds (like almonds), beans and tuna. *Source: Choosemyplate.gov
- Lessen your exposure to arsenic. Arsenic levels in rice is concerning. I have written three articles on the subject:
Should gluten-free folks be worried about arsenic found in rice? Sept. 20, 2012
New developments in arsenic in rice–FDA investigation Sept.6, 2013
Studies consider gluten-free eaters in arsenic in rice investigation November 3, 2014
Reduce your exposure to rice. Find a different cereal in the morning, switch out rice for a potato or quinoa at dinner. Look for baking mixes where rice is not a primary ingredient.
- You might gain, lose or maintain your weight. It honestly may purely depend on your own body and what you are eating. If you have celiac disease and are underweight, you may want to gain weight. If you are overweight, going gluten-free may not magically make you skinnier. However, when you go gluten-free if you shop for whole, one-ingredient foods instead of buying processed gluten-free cookies, cakes and toaster pastries, you will be better off and could lose some weight simply because you are eating foods that are better for you.
For people with celiac who have a damaged gut, gaining weight is a possibility because your gut is healing and absorbing nutrients again.
- You can eat gluten free and stay on a budget. A few tips here (see point 3). Buying real food when it is in season is when you can save the most money on produce. As for breads etc, I would highly recommend checking out Nicole Hunn’s first Gluten-Free on a Shoestring book. It was GREAT at helping you understand that if you make your own breads, you can save $$.
- You can diagnose a serious health condition like celiac disease as long as you GET TESTED BEFORE GOING GLUTEN FREE. If you think you have a problem with gluten, a simple blood test will be a starting point for you. If you test positive for celiac via the blood test, you will likely need to confirm it with a biopsy/endoscopy of the small intestine. You don’t want to mess with an autoimmune disease. GET TESTED!
- You can control your own food to decrease the chance of exposure to gluten. See our point 3 again, if you are worried about Consumer Reports’ point 6 above. If you are in control of your own food and cooking and not buying processed foods, you will lessen your chance of getting gluten.
I want to stress the Consumer Reports article was well developed with accurate and thought-through points. I thought it was great, and tapped a wide variety of reliable resources in our community.
I just think some headlines gave the gluten free diet a bit of a bad wrap. This post is aimed to make some points to empower the gluten-free eater and not make them feel badly about it.