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4 Myths About Eating Gluten Free

Hi friends! I asked my dietitian friend Julie of RDelicious Kitchen to share a guest post with all of you today because Matt and I are making the trip from DC to Pittsburgh for the holidays! Julie and I met at Blog Brulee; she works as a supermarket RD. Recently, she has had a lot of customers come to her at the supermarket saying they started following a gluten free diet – but when she talked to them more, she realized none of them even knew what gluten was. They also all thought that by avoiding gluten they were reducing their carbohydrate intake – but that’s not necessarily going to be the case, especially if they are purchasing gluten free products like breads, crackers, cereals, etc. All this said, Julie and I thought it would be interesting and informative for her to share a post about some of the biggest myths related to eating gluten free. Take it away, Julie!

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4 Myths About Eating Gluten Free

julie-

harrington-with-cookbook1

Julie Harrington, RD

Julie is a registered dietitian living in New Jersey. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Culinary Nutrition at Johnson & Wales University and completed her dietetic internship at the College of Saint Elizabeth. She works at a grocery store as a Supermarket RD. On the side, she is a private chef, a spin instructor, and writes the blog RDelicious Kitchen. She believes that no food is off limits and loves to teach people how to incorporate the foods they love in a healthy way.

Follow Julie: Blog / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Do you remember in the 90’s when fat was the nutrition enemy? Snack Wells made their big debut of a “healthy” fat-free snack. I harshly use those quotes because yes, maybe they are fat-free, but they are still a processed cookie that contains a ton of sugar and various chemicals. Fast forward 10 years and society realized the fat-free trend has died. Now gluten is the new nutrition enemy. As a supermarket dietitian, I find myself talking about the gluten-free misconception daily. I have customers come to me for nutrition counseling saying they are gluten free. My first question for them is why. Why are you deciding to be gluten free? Then I proceed to ask them, “Do you know what gluten is?” I am not asking them to embarrass them, but to open up a dialogue of nutrition awareness. The majority of consumers are not getting their nutrition information from a reputable source and really don’t know the answer to why they chose to go gluten free.

GF symbol

Many answers I receive are:

  • Because it is healthier
  • Because I want to eat low carb
  • Because I have diabetes and need to eat low carb
  • Because there are toxins in gluten
  • Because I want to lose weight
  • Because gluten is harmful to my body

So, the big question is… what is gluten? Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barely, and rye. For some, they must avoid the protein because they have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition in which gluten causes potentially life-threatening intestinal damage. Nearly one out of every 133 Americans has celiac disease, equivalent to nearly 1% of the U.S. population. However, 97% of people with celiac disease remain undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. This means that up to three million Americans have celiac disease and only about 100,000 know they have the condition. [1]

Celiac disease is a genetic disorder, meaning that it passed from parent to child via DNA. In some cases, stressful events like pregnancy, surgery, infection, or severe emotional distress can trigger the onset of the disease. Our guts are lined with healthy villi that under a microscope look like millions of tiny fingers. These villi are important during the process of digestion because the healthy villi contain important enzymes that help absorb the vital nutrients from food that our body needs to properly function. People who have celiac disease cannot digest the protein found in gluten, which leads to an immune reaction where the villi are destroyed. Under a microscope the villi look flat.

villi

When the villi are destroyed, it leads to malabsorption and causes nutritional deficiencies such as iron-deficiency anemia, weight loss, growth stunting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and vomiting. The most common symptoms (although in some cases there may be no symptoms at all) are gastrointestinal like bloating, gas, diarrhea, and nausea. Common non-intestinal symptoms include bone and joint pain, depression, itchy skin, migraines, and fatigue. Celiac disease has a wide variety of symptoms that often vary from person to person. Because there are approximately 300 symptoms associated with the disease, doctors often have difficulty diagnosing it and, in some cases, misdiagnose people with other digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). [2]

Often times, people may experience gastrointestinal symptoms from gluten, but it is causing no nutritional deficiencies and often misdiagnosed as IBS. This would be considered a gluten sensitivity. The reaction the body exhibits when digesting gluten may contribute to discomfort, like bloating, gas, diarrhea, etc., but it is not causing any nutritional deficiencies or damaging the villi, like with Celiac disease. When the sensitivity interferes with everyday living, one may choose to follow a gluten free diet to avoid continuous discomfort. The true difference is that with celiac disease a gluten free diet must be a lifelong commitment. Eating any amount of gluten, no matter how tiny it is, can damage the villi in the small intestines and prevent the absorption of essential nutrients. With someone who has a gluten sensitivity, gluten is avoided to manage symptoms; consuming gluten would not cause any nutritional problems, but symptoms will return.

But is following a gluten free diet for everyone? The simple answer is no. According to a recent survey of more than 1,000 Americans by Consumer Reports National Research Center, 63% thought that following a gluten free diet would improve physical or mental health. Unless you have celiac disease or a true gluten sensitivity, there is no reason to avoid gluten. When you cut out gluten completely, you can cut out foods that have valuable nutrients and may end up adding more calories and fat to your daily intake. [1]

Let’s clear up a few myths related to gluten and gluten free diets.

Myth #1: Gluten free is healthier.

Like mentioned above, when replacing gluten with other gluten free starch mixtures to create a gluten free product, that means adding sugar and fat. Additionally, most gluten free foods aren’t enriched or fortified with nutrients like folic acid and iron, like wheat products are.

CRM_Gluten_Nutrician_chart_Page-38 [1]

While eating gluten free may mean reducing some of the processed junk food from your diet (awesome!), it’s not the lack of the gluten that is making it healthier, but the lack of all that junky, processed food.

Myth #2: Eating gluten free is expensive.

If you go overboard on purchasing all processed gluten free products and relying on only those for nourishment, then yes, it may get pricey. But you can eat gluten free in a lower cost way, too. Build the base of your diet around healthy and naturally gluten free foods like:

  • Meat, poultry, and eggs: unseasoned beef, poultry, pork, eggs
  • Seafood: fish, shellfish
  • Cereals: cream of rice, puffed rice
  • Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt
  • Fats and Oils: olive oil, butter
  • Produce: variety of fruits and vegetables, herbs
  • Snacks: nuts, seeds, corn chips, popcorn
  • Canned/packaged goods: tuna, beans, lentils
  • Grains/Starches: brown rice, quinoa, millet, gluten free flours

Myth #3: I will lose weight if I eat gluten free.

The majority of the time when I have customers come to me after they have been following a gluten free diet and seen weight loss success, it is because they started cutting out refined and processed foods and naturally followed a gluten free diet (overall healthy diet) like explained in myth #2. It wasn’t the eliminated gluten that caused weight loss – it was the decrease in processed/junk food. On the flipside, someone with celiac disease will usually have the opposite effect. Undiagnosed celiac disease leads to malabsorption causing malnourishment; when the damaged villi heals, one is able to digest and absorb the essential nutrients, causing weight gain.

Myth #4: Gluten free means low carb.

The term gluten often gets misunderstood for thinking that it just means carbohydrates. With that misunderstanding, many believe that gluten free products are low carb, which isn’t always true, especially for gluten free packaged products (vs. naturally gluten free foods) that are made with various gluten free starch (carb) blends.

For example, gluten free bread often actually has MORE grams of carbohydrates than regular wheat bread!

Gluten Free bread / Serving Size: 1 slice = 21 grams of carbohydrates

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 4.46.39 PM Whole wheat bread / Serving size: 1 slice = 15 grams of carbohydrates
(plus more fiber, protein & less sugar)

WW bread label

This isn’t to say that gluten free products aren’t healthy – many of them can be, especially if they are minimally processed and don’t include as many additives as some of the processed wheat products might. But it’s not always true to assume that gluten free means low carb – it often doesn’t.

So, before jumping on the gluten free bandwagon, really identify if this is the best choice for you. Many do not know why they are following the latest diet craze or even what it is! Be a smart consumer – do your research. For more on this topic of gluten free myths, there was an interesting article in the New Yorker recently entitled Against the Grain. Check it out!

Sources:

  1. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2015/01/will-a- gluten-free-diet-really-make-you-healthier/index.htm
  2. http://nspt4kids.com/parenting/is-gluten-bad-for-you/

Comments

  1. 1

    Thank you so much for writing this article. I am a health coach and I often have clients who say they are gluten-free for reasons other than celiac disease (i.e., the myths you describe). It is especially frustrating to see parents placing their children on a gluten-free diet for no real reason, since I think it is better for children to get in the habit of eating a well-balanced diet of foods that are minimally processed. I cannot wait for this diet-craze to be over.

  2. 2

    Gluten-free eating has become just another fad diet. I’ve been GF for 6 years. I have Celiac Disease. My mother had it and my daughter has now been diagnosed. So there is definitely a genetic component. I choose to eat naturally GF foods for the most part. I do buy GF bread occasionally beause I get hungry for sandwiches. Thank you for clarifying some of the myths for those who need it.

  3. 3

    My mom used to buy those snackwells… *shudders* They were awful. Thank you for sharing. I have a couple friends who have celiac disease and being required to follow a strict gluten free diet for genuine health reasons can be really difficult.

  4. 5

    Good post! I think gluten free has become the new fad. It is great when people eat naturally gluten free because they are minimizing processed snacks and concentrating on whole foods. However, so many people are swapping out for the gluten free version and often times they are doing more harm than good. Those products were designed for people who truly could not tolerate or digest gluten.

  5. 6

    It anger me so much how people have abused and know nothing about what being gluten-free actually means. There is no need for anyone to be gluten-free unless, like me, they have a mdeical condition like Celiac. It’s so frustrating.

    • 7

      Rebecca, instead of being so angry about the GF fad you should be grateful. Because of it, foods are being labeled and grocery store and restaurants now have so many more options for people with Celiacs disease!

  6. 8

    Great post! Any way we can debunk this gluten myth is great. It’s so frustrating having people jump on a bandwagon yet have no idea what it is or why they are doing it!

  7. 9

    Thank you for bringing light to such an important topic! There are so many misconceptions with eating a GF diet and it’s upsetting to watch people fall into that trap. Same thing with organic foods. Just because it’s labeled GF or organic does not mean it’s healthy!

  8. 11

    Great article! There are so many misunderstandings about gluten and this was written in a way that is easy to understand. I recently wrote a post about why I am no longer eating gluten free and it is because although I feel that I am somewhat sensitive to gluten, I will just plan to eat it in moderation instead of altering my whole diet to contain GF products. I do not have so severe of a response to warrant that (and I love bread :) )

  9. 12

    Great article – thanks Julie (and Anne for sharing!). I eat gluten free sometimes, but generally as a way of including other foods into my diet, rather than starchy carbs. For example I like adding quinoa and amaranth to my porridge to get extra protein. And I’ll often choose corn or sweet potato as my carb over extra bread. I still eat gluten products, but probably just less than I used to.

  10. 13

    Great article! This reminds me of that Jimmy KiKimmel video where he asks people what gluten is and they can’t answer him.

  11. 15

    One of the first nutrition posts I wrote on my blog was the myths behind gluten and gluten-free so I can not be more excited to see this post!! My blood borderline boils when someone says “I’m gluten free now” but they have scientific reasoning behind it. Gluten is just another buzz word and there will be a new one shortly, just like carbs and fat were the “enemy.” I once had a co-worker tell me she was gluten free and being the type of person who reserves my evidence-based opinion for when I’m asked for it, I kept my mouth shut. One day she came back from lunch and was complaining how her stomach hurt because she ate gluten accidentally. When I asked her what she had for lunch she replied “bacon cheeseburger with french fries ugh.” I just blankly stared at her haha. So your stomach is upset from the gluten in the bun? Not just the entire saturated meal you just ate? Right.

  12. 16

    This is a great post. Unfortunately many people are misinformed about good & nutrition. My Mom had open heart surgery and was told to eat low fat, no fat. She’s been eating a ton of processed foods which I’m explaining to her is not good. People need more education on how to prepare meals according to their dietary needs.

  13. 17

    Thank you again for letting me write and share this post!

  14. 19

    Great post! Shared on my Facebook page, thanks :)

  15. 20

    Very informative, thanks!

  16. 21

    Yes! I’m so happy to see more articles written by RDs with good sources explaining why gluten-free isn’t automatically healthier. It’s a pet peeve of mine! It really has become a fad diet this year, and I have to say I don’t like any fad diets. They often lead to unbalanced eating.

  17. 22

    Thanks for sharing! I think that Jimmy Kimmel gluten free video is so telling. So many people on the gluten free wagon are blindly following and are completely unaware of what gluten really is! Disseminating this non-sense is so important, especially when backed up with evidence as you have done! Plus that New Yorker article is so great :)

  18. 23

    While I agree completely that many are quickly and ignorantly deciding to “go gluten-free” oftentimes missing the mark entirely, and that gluten-free junk is indeed still junk, I believe strongly that the issue of gluten itself and its effects on our bodies is incredibly complex. I do not believe the gluten-free diet is exclusively beneficial to those diagnosed with celiac disease. I feel we are at the cusp of understanding, defining and diagnosing non-celiac gluten sensitivity, as well as determining gluten’s intrinsic effect on multiple systems of the body, such as brain health, overall neurological systems, and autoimmune responses. I’ve always held that if someone isn’t getting enough folic acid, iron or B vitamins because they aren’t eating wheat bread, then they have greater dietary problems than the gluten-free diet. I totally agree that as dietitians we must do our best to combat ignorance, but I am afraid throwing out the very real issues of gluten by being quick to write it off as a fad-diet may also be perpetuating it.

  19. 24

    Hi Julie (and Anne)! I’m really glad you posted this. I am not Celiac, but my rheum doc has suggested the possibility of a GF diet to decrease inflammation and joint pain. I’m a nurse and have read a lot of information on this, both positive and negative. I am hesitant to try, because I hate to cut something out unnecessarily, but have considered it just to see if it makes a difference. Any thoughts?

    • 25

      Hi An,
      In response to your concern about RA and gluten…I also am an RN and I also have RA, for 22 years now. I’ve run the gamut of treatments and have been reasonably stable on Enbrel for the last 16 years. Eight years ago my mother was diagnosed as a celiac. While I’m not a celiac I do believe my autoimmune issues stem from that genetic predisposition. I finally went gfree a year and a half ago. Did/does it help me? I wasn’t sure until a recent event confirmed that gluten definitely plays a role in my flares. I did my own challenge and ate a hamburger…bun and all. I am a true believer now…I have had one of my worst flares in a long time, and that’s even with a shot of Enbrel on board. I hadn’t seen really hard evidence until now and I’m committed to being gluten free forever. You have nothing to lose by trying it…it takes about six months of being gfree to rid your body of the gluten antigens that cause flares. It is an adjustment, but less or no pain and destruction is a worthy goal. Best wishes…

    • 26

      Hi An! I can’t give a full answer without knowing more about you, but I have read a lot about gluten and inflammation, particularly related to those that have autoimmune disorders. In my opinion, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to give it a shot. I hope it helps!

      • 27
        lisa ondris says:

        I have hashimotos and belong to several facebook pages where they Insist that If you have hashimotos you must be gluten free and talk all the time about how ill they get from being accidently glutened & seem to go to extremes to prevent themselfs from being glutened. yet they eat all of this gluten free processed crap, It bogles my mind. I do have some Issues with Inflamation & pain & nerve damage. but I eliminated gluten from my diet for about 3 months or so because I thought I had a wheat allergy, when I reIntrodeuced wheat along with gluten I didn’t feel any gastro ssues, I also had a gluten biosopy done which came back negetative. was wondering If gluten could be the source of the Inflamation or not? & If there Is something I am missing? Is there truely scientific evidence that gluten Is as evil as these people are saying?

        • 28

          I have read a lot about gluten causing inflammation (but not necessarily gastro issues) in those with Hashimotos – it’s not 100% proven, but when I have clients with Hashimotos I do suggest they go gluten free.

  20. 29

    Thanks Anne and Julie for the post! As food for thought:

    I’m an RD who was educated in the days of science being absolutely certain that “low-fat” was the key to heart health and at a time when science was absolutely certain that “Celiac disease is rare” (#IAmThatOld). Having watched science evolve over the years and seeing what was then considered indisputable evidence to support these nutritional tenants, I have developed a fairly moderate approach to the belief that there actually may be a lot about gluten sensitivity that we simply don’t understand today.

    While I agree whole-heartedly that many people are jumping on a GF bandwagon without a good understanding of “why” (‘course let’s be honest. Those are the same people jumping on every dietary bandwagon), I think there are actually a lot of people who do understand “why” and have experienced a positive impact in their health by adopting a GF diet. It’s these folks that I think we as RDs often overlook and discount their choice. I’m of the camp that if you make a dietary change and it impacts you positively, who am I to try and argue with you that it was a bad choice? Isn’t part of our jobs to simply help people feel better through diet? I agree with the point that if someone is relying on fortified wheat bread for iron, B vitamins, etc., then their overall diet needs reworking, irrespective of gluten.

    But back to this notion of non-Celiacs feeling better when they eat GF and whether or not it’s gluten related…you naturally have to wonder — Is it because of the junk reduction? Is it because of the reduction in refined carbohydrate? Possibly. But is that a bad thing? I’m definitely not saying this post was combative to the contrary, but I do see a tone from many of our colleagues that points in that direction.

    And I think some of that resistance to be open minded about the “what if” stems from the fact that we do our best to operate within the understanding of science as it was taught to us in school. But there’s a fine line between being true to long-standing research and being willing to challenge norms and consider new, innovative diet therapies (example: LEAP mediator release testing and IgG immune response testing). Holding true to the former should never (IMO) mean being unwilling to thoughtfully consider the latter. I agree that while science should never be ignored, I just think it’s our jobs as nutrition professionals is to acknowledge that science is an evolution, not an archive. Thanks for letting me weigh in :)

  21. 31

    Wow Regan, this is so well said!! I know so many professionals that will not think outside of what they were taught in school…even if they graduated 15 years ago! Science is not stagnant, it is quickly evolving and changing. I find so many of the above comments interesting. A lot of people seem to feel very strongly against a GF diet, claiming its just a fad and that as one person stated…”it makes my blood boil”, and that it is “non-sense”. While they wonder why anyone whould go GF, I wonder why anyone shouldn’t? Usually such strong reactions come from feelings…not facts. Sometimes it can be very difficult to accept what goes against what you believe to be true, but that doesn’t mean its wrong. After all, the world was once thought to be flat ;) Thanks Regan for such an insightful response, and thanks to Anne and Julie for an interesting post!

  22. 32

    Such a great post! Gluten is misunderstood in so many ways! Thanks for clearing up the confusions!

  23. 33

    I was recently diagnosed with IBS and I feel like it is such a cop-out for doctors when they don’t really know what is wrong. I have low iron and am always bloated. I know going gluten free is not necessary the solution, but after reading this I feel like I may want to give it a try to see if I feel better. If I go gluten free, I would definitely do it with healthy, natural foods. I have no intention of buying the packaged crap just because it says “gluten free”. I think that’s the biggest problem for people who want to go gluten free.

    • 34

      I agree. Sounds like it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try, especially if you do it the right way. It might be worth looking into food sensitivity testing (like ALCAT) as well! Good luck – hope you feel better! Also, one thing to note – stress can often be related, too. So keep that in mind as well. :)

  24. 35

    Good article. However, when I was diagnosed with celiac disease, and had to go gluten free, nobody took me seriously because this was the “new fad”. My husband thought I was a hypochondriac, and my kids thought it was just me trying something new. No one believed me. Then, one day, I couldn’t get out of bed again. I have been anemic my whole life, and have irritable bowel syndrome. When I think that maybe it IS in my head, I eat gluten again, and then the joint pain, bloating, severe fatigue, and constant mouth sores. I finally stopped eating gluten and took care of myself, rather than worrying what others thought or felt. I am now feeling and thinking great! I will never do that again…eating gluten. Please do not dismiss those with celiac. I find people have very snarky and cynical comments when one mentions that they have celiac. It’s just not being taken seriously.

    Oh, and I got tested because my cousin had esophageal cancer and extreme bloating. We both got tested, and our doctors said the incidence was higher among those with Northern European Ancestry. Our grandparents are Dutch and German. Interesting, huh?

    • 36

      I’m so sorry to hear about your experience, but I’m really glad that you are feeling better now! Celiac disease is certainly no joke and it’s unfortunate that the gluten free fad has made that less clear to people who don’t understand it.

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