Gluten-Free and Healthy?
Many Times the Answer is No

by Melissa Diane Smith

This article is based on a presentation I gave to the Southern Arizona Celiac Support group entitled “It’s Gluten Free, but Is It Healthy?” in January.

The gluten-free diet is one of the most talked-about and followed diets these days for good reason: It’s the nutritional answer for the growing number of people who realize they are gluten sensitive. It’s the best example we have of food as our best medicine. The vast majority of people who are gluten sensitive have experienced the amazing feeling of having longstanding bothersome or even debilitating symptoms dramatically improve or completely go away when they eliminate gluten from their diet.

However, for all the good eating gluten free can do for those of us who are gluten sensitive, it can do plenty of harm if we eat gluten free the wrong way. Unfortunately, many people are doing that without realizing it. It’s common for people to experience a big improvement in health when they first go gluten free, and gradually develop unwanted, unhealthy weight gain or new health problems, such as diabetic or prediabetic blood sugar levels, the longer that they eat gluten free. In one study, 82 percent of people who went on a gluten-free diet gained weight in the first two years of eating that way, including 81 percent of the people in the study who were originally overweight.

So, if the gluten-free diet is so therapeutic for so many, why does it often lead to unwanted weight gain, prediabetes or diabetes, and sometimes other conditions, such as new allergies? It’s because many “gluten-free” foods aren’t healthy over the long term for reasons that don’t have anything to do with gluten (although it’s important to be aware that many packaged foods that are labeled “gluten-free” aren’t really free of gluten. If you’d like to learn more about that, read my post “A Closer Look at ‘Gluten Free’” from earlier this year.)

Based on my experience counseling clients around the country on the gluten-free diet for more than 15 years, there are two main mistakes people make with the diet:

  1. They eat too many blood-sugar-spiking, high-carbohydrate, gluten-free foods that set off a cascade of metabolic changes in the body that lead to weight gain, increased blood sugar levels, and the development of numerous heart-disease risk factors
  2. They eat a lot of corn and other gluten-free products that contain genetically modified foods that increase the risk of everything from gastrointestinal problems to allergies to immune system problems.

A GF Version of the Standard American Diet (SAD)

When most people first start on the gluten-free diet, they simply replace the wheat-containing breads, pasta, baked goods, and snack foods they were eating with gluten-free versions of those foods made with ingredients such as rice, corn, potato starch, tapioca starch, and sugar. Even though these foods are free of gluten, they stimulate sharp increases in blood sugar levels, and the body responds by increasing the production of insulin, a fat-storage hormone. The combination of high blood sugar levels and high insulin levels that develops from eating these foods sets off a cascade of events in the body that over time promotes weight gain, accelerated aging, and disease, greatly increasing the risk of conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Gluten-free flours, such as rice flour and cornmeal, spike blood sugar and insulin levels all on their own, but they’re often made much worse by being combined with what I call “disease-causing” ingredients in many gluten-free products. Disease-causing ingredients include: sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, fructose, long lists of food additives, vegetable oils (including soybean, corn, cottonseed, sunflower, and safflower oils), and trans-fats (found in partially hydrogenated oil and most vegetable shortenings and margarine). We know from research that these ingredients contribute to disease processes in the body, including unwanted weight gain, inflammation, and the development of insulin resistance, the condition at the heart of degenerative conditions such as type 2 diabetes and a cluster of common heart-disease risk factors.  My book Going Against the Grain provides more in-depth information on this subject.

The bottom line: Whether it’s gluten-containing or gluten-free, a Standard American Diet (appropriately abbreviated SAD) sets us up for disease. In other words, those of us who eat gluten-free shouldn’t want to emulate the Standard American Diet. Although substituting a lot of gluten-free breads, pasta, baked goods and snack foods may be a convenient and easy way to go gluten free, it sets us up for new, non-gluten-related ailments and diseases to develop. The better choice for health is to go further against the grain and gradually eat more and more vegetables in place of grains (even gluten-free grains). Many people who eat gluten free simply haven’t learned this crucial nutrition information to protect their health.

GF Genetically Modified Foods

When people go on the gluten-free diet, it’s also common for people to switch from wheat-containing products such as tortillas to corn-containing products. Corn is a blood-sugar-spiking food that fattens up cattle and can do the same to us.

However, there’s a far more insidious problem with corn: In the past 15 or so years, it has been genetically modified – in other words, altered at the genetic level in a laboratory – to either tolerate otherwise deadly doses of herbicide (weed killer) or to produce its own insecticide in every bite of food – or both. So, the corn of today is a radical departure from the corn we grew up eating as children.

Corn isn’t the only genetically modified food. Other common genetically modified organism (GMO) foods often found in gluten-free food products include: soy (i.e., soy protein, soy flour, soy lecithin, soybean oil, etc.), canola oil, cottonseed oil, and sugar from sugar beets (contained in all products with “sugar” listed in the ingredients unless it is specifically labeled cane sugar or organic).

Some important things to know about genetically modified foods are they have been allowed on the market in the United States without labeling and without testing on humans, even though in other countries, they are restricted, clearly labeled, and sometimes even banned. Unfortunately, that means that Americans are in a feeding experiment for which we didn’t give our consent and about which we haven’t been educated.

Animal research indicates serious health risks associated with eating GM foods, including infertility, immune system problems, accelerated aging, dysfunction of insulin, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen, and gastrointestinal system. The health risks are so serious that the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), an international organization of doctors, recommends non-GMO diets for all patients. The AAEM also says that many doctors are likely seeing the negative health effects from genetically modified foods in their patients right now but not realizing that these foods are contributors to the health conditions their patients are experiencing.

As a nutrition counselor, I have seen firsthand the health benefits of avoiding genetically modified foods. One notable story is that one of my clients from Denver who already had been eating gluten-free for nine years had a serious, “incurable” immune system condition and numerous allergic symptoms clear up when she removed genetically modified foods from her diet.

If you’d like to avoid genetically modified foods as she did, avoid processed foods, emphasize naturally gluten-free fresh foods such as vegetables, fruits, and nuts; avoid at-risk foods such as corn, soy, canola, cottonseed, and sugar unless they are labeled USDA Organic or Non-GMO Project Verified; and switch to more grass-fed meats and wild-caught fish.

Be sure to select the gluten-free convenience foods you use carefully. My latest book, Gluten Free Throughout the Year, was written to help steer people to healthier, non-GMO, gluten-free food choices on a day-to-day basis. You also can learn to avoid GMOs by following the Eat GMO Free Challenge that I and the GMO Free Project of Tucson developed.

Time for a Higher-Quality Gluten-Free Diet

All of us who are gluten sensitive went on the gluten-free diet to improve and protect our health. However, the gluten-free diet as it’s currently followed has been getting many of us into new health problems.

It’s time for us to go to a new and improved gluten-free diet – what I call Gluten Free 2.0. That’s an eating plan in which we avoid the common nutrition mistakes that are causing people new health problems and an eating plan in which food quality is as important as avoiding gluten. Quality ingredients lead to quality health. By going further against the grain to gradually improve the diet and give our bodies higher-quality ingredients, we all can go to a new level of eating gluten free for health.

Copyright © 2012 Melissa Diane Smith

Melissa’s Comments

I just love seeing when people learn this information and finally understand that gluten-free doesn’t necessarily mean healthy! We need many more people who are switching over to the gluten-free diet to learn this information sooner rather than later, before they develop brand new serious health problems.

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