Debunking Nutrition Myths with Mich:

By Michele Rafeld MS, RD

Gluten free, to be or not to be

As a registered dietitian, I often get asked questions about various heath and nutrition trends. One popular health trend that has surfaced over the past decade is adopting a gluten free diet. While gluten free products were once confined to health food stores and specialty shops, now most restaurants and mainstream supermarkets offer several gluten free options. Not only are gluten free products more readily available it supermarkets, the diet is considered trendy amongst certain celebrities such as Kardashians and Lady Gaga. Going gluten free can seem like an easy solution to cure certain health ailments and can appear to be “healthy”. It is important, however, to understand the facts before foregoing gluten altogether. 

Clients have reported they stay away from gluten because it is healthier or they have other  family members that refrain from eating gluten and have adopted the lifestyle. In fact, 35% of people purchase gluten free products for “no reason”,  compared to 8% were labeled as having some type of gluten sensitivity.[1]


So What Is Gluten Anyway and Who Should Avoid It?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Therefore, products made from these grains such as pasta, breads and baked goods contain gluten. People diagnosed with celiac disease can not tolerate even trace amounts of gluten. Just a small amount of the gluten protein can cause an immune response, which damages the lining of the small intestine. This can interfere with absorption of nutrients, which in turn can lead to many other medical complications. A biopsy of the small intestine is usually the best confirmation of diagnosis of Celiacs disease. Unfortunately, there is no clear test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity. However, some individuals can test negative for celiac disease yet get symptoms such as gas and bloating when they ingest gluten.  A simple skin test can diagnose a wheat allergy. If you suspect gluten is a cause of concern ask your GI doctor for further testing.  

The molecule of gluten itself is “sticky” meaning through processing some other by products may adhere to the molecule.[2]Individuals in immune compromised situations may want to decrease gluten in their diet for this reason however gluten will not be harmful to ingest. For all of us other folks, the real cause of inflammation is complex but usually associated with stress and stressors in our life. For this reason, it is more important to look at the causes of stress instead of excluding such a vital part of one’s diet. In other words, if gluten is not a culprit of concern, there is no reason why you should avoid it in your diet. In fact, it can do more harm than good to take gluten and its associated foods out of your diet.

Let’s take a closer look

Nutritionally speaking, these gluten filled grains (wheat, rye and barley) have a variety of vitamins and minerals and micronutrients, such as 

  • B complex vitamins

  • Antioxidants

  • Phytonutrients

  • Unsaturated fats

If you compare a slice of whole wheat bread to a slice of gluten free bread, you will get more fiber and nutrients from the whole wheat version. Not to mention, gluten free products are often more pricey and higher in added sugar than non-gluten free versions.

Michele’s Bottom Line:

Unless you’re diagnosed with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity or a wheat allergy there is no reason to avoid gluten. Going gluten free may seem like a quick fix or easy way to cure health ailments but it might not be the solution you are looking for. Make sure you are managing your stress levels and eating a well balanced diet. 

In the standard American diet, most people consume a majority of grains through wheat-based products, such as bread and pasta. As a non-diet dietitian, I am a fan of consuming a wide variety of grains from different sources to get varied vitamins and minerals into your diet. Here are some ideas of how to enjoy gluten as well as other non-gluten grains.

  • Mix up your standard pancake recipe with buckwheat

  • Try a multigrain bread

  • Add a side dish of wild rice or quinoa to your dinner

  • Experiment switching up your standard white pasta with chickpea or brown rice pasta

  • Use a medley of grains in a dish such as barley, wheat berries and brown rice

[1]The Hartman Group’s Health & Wellness 2015 and Organic & Natural 2014 Reports.

[2]“A Grounded Guide to Gluten: How Modern Genotypes and Processing Impact

Wheat Sensitivity Lisa Kissing Kucek, Lynn D. Veenstra, Plaimein Amnuaycheewa, and Mark E. Sorrells