Gluten-free is all the rage now with major restaurant chains offering gluten-free menus and even the smallest grocery stores having aisles dedicated to gluten-free products. With the proliferation of gluten-free offerings, one might be tempted to think we are making healthier choices.
This is not the case.
I remember when I first started working with Hashimoto’s patients. After delivering the news that their thyroid condition was in fact an autoimmune condition, I informed them that they needed to go gluten-free in order to prevent their bodies from making antibodies that attacked and destroyed their thyroid gland. Knowing that this can be quite a drastic change for some people, I tried to encourage them by reminding them that this was an opportunity to eat healthier by filling out their diets with vegetables instead of processed wheat products. What quickly became apparent though, is that people simply started swapping their processed wheat products for processed gluten-free products.
Let me be plain: Gluten-free foods are NOT health foods.
- Gluten-free products are highly processed. It takes the marvels of modern machinery to make something made of rice flour to not taste gritty and chalky.
- Gluten-free foods are high in sugar. What’s the best way to cover-up that chalky taste? Sugar. Lots of it!
- Gluten-free foods are terrible for blood sugar regulation. Another way to improve the taste & texture of a gluten-free food, besides adding a lot of sugar, is to using highly refined starches like cornstarch, potato starch & tapioca starch. These are very fine powders that are often a solution to that ‘gritty’ texture of rice flour. The problem is that they are so refined, there is nothing to digest and their carbohydrate content hits the bloodstream very quickly, provoking an insulin spike. This is very hard on the pancreas and is the same mechanism that leads to the development of Type II diabetes.
- Gluten-free foods use refined vegetable oils. Fats are another way to cover up the chalky taste & texture. This wouldn’t be so problematic if we were using heat-stable, traditional fats like coconut oil or butter. However, most refined foods have refined fats in them like canola and soybean oil. These oils are not stable at high temperatures and have gone through a complex treatment process to deodorize and clean them before they are even sold to you. Why would they have to go through this process? Because they are so delicate, they become rancid just going through the extraction process. They have to be cleansed and deodorized or they would be too disgusting to eat. While the smell may be gone, the artery-destroying free radicals and inflammation-promoting omega 6 fats are not. Avoid these.
- Gluten-free foods are not a good source of nutrients. This is a problem with any processed food. Processing removes and/or destroys the nutrient content. The more highly processed, the more of the nutrients that have been destroyed. Compared to vegetables, grains aren’t that great a source of nutrients to begin with. Refining them further into flours and even starches, removes what little there was to begin with. If health is really your goal, its best to swap out gluten-free wanna-be foods for real, whole foods that are naturally gluten-free. Like vegetables 🙂
It’s for the above reasons that I started recommending a Paleo-type diet when I need my patients to go gluten-free. Paleo is about whole, real foods. It’s also about healing the gut. Because here’s the other thing I began to notice when my patients just started swapping their processed wheat products for gluten-free processed products: they started developing sensitivities to other grain products- particularly the ones that they started consuming more often in the processed gluten-free foods. In the scientific literature this is known as ‘cross-reactivity.’ This occurred because the underlying problem- often a leaky gut- was not fully healed by simply switching to a ‘gluten-free’ diet.
I also noticed this pattern in my Celiac patients. Their symptoms greatly improved on a gluten-free diet, but they still didn’t feel fully well or healthy until they started eating more whole foods and less processed food. Again, years and years of irritation and inflammation in the gut could not be fixed simply by going gluten-free. All grains needed to be eliminated and more nutrient-dense foods like vegetables and bone broth needed to be added.
If a product has to be labeled ‘gluten-free,’ its probably not healthy for you. If health is truly your goal, you would be better off investing in naturally gluten-free foods like animal products, vegetables, fruits and nuts.