Should I Eat: Gluten Free

Gluten free is hot. It’s one of the fastest growing dietary trends out there. You can find gluten free anything…  Cookies, pastas, cakes, beer. You name it… you can find a gluten free option for it.

You're at the store, and you see that box of gluten free crackers. You wonder, is it really better for me? Is gluten free all it’s cracked up to be? Is it really for everyone? Should you seek out – and pay more for – gluten free products? Probably not.

First, what is gluten? Gluten is a protein that is found in many grains, such as wheat, barley and rye. For people with celiac disease, gluten free is a must. When people with celiac disease – about 1% of the population - eat gluten, they cause inflammation and damage to their small intestine. This damage results in poor absorption of nutrients, and frequently leads to severe gastro-intestinal symptoms. There are several tests for celiac disease, including blood tests and biopsy.

Moreover, there is some evidence, that people not officially diagnosed with celiac disease may have non celiac gluten sensitivity. For these folks, a gluten free diet is also essential to feeling as well as possible.

BUT… For the rest of us, does gluten free make sense? No.

Gluten free foods – particularly processed foods – have an aura of “healthiness.” But gluten free chips, crackers and snacks are often made with inexpensive alternative starches, including rice flour, potato flour and tapioca starch. These “junk starches” raise your blood sugar… even more than traditional wheat products! Plus, they often have just as much fat, sugar and salt as their regular gluten-inclusive counterparts. Gluten free products are a great option for people who must truly avoid gluten. But they are not, by definition, healthy or low carb.  

What about nut flours? Nut flours – particularly almond flour and coconut flour – are often used in gluten free baking recipes. They impart flavor, moisture and are generally well tolerated. And we all know that almonds are particularly nutrient dense. However, they are also high in fat and in inflammatory fatty acids. In short, while nut flours – almond flour in particular – are great ingredients, they are not necessarily healthy by definition.

Bottom line? If you do not have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, make your decisions wisely. When it comes to processed goods, gluten free does not mean carb free. Gluten free does not mean healthy. And gluten free does not - by itself encourage weight loss.