Since being diagnosed with Celiac disease nearly a year ago, I’ve had some interesting experiences related to trying to eat gluten free, and have also heard some interesting comments from friends. I’d like to take some time to clear up some myths surrounding the gluten free diet!
Myth #1 Eating gluten free is healthier for everyone.
The number one comment I’ve heard since I got diagnosed with Celiac disease, is “Oh, now you’ll be eating so much healthier.” But is eating gluten free actually healthier?
Thanks to the explosion of celebrity endorsements, gluten free diet gurus, and heavily marketed gluten free products, the gluten free label has become synonymous with “healthy.” It’s true that the vast majority of naturally gluten free foods, such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, legumes, nuts and seeds, as well as gluten free whole grains are healthy. However, these foods aren’t healthy because they are gluten free. They’re healthy because they are whole foods with high nutritional value. Whole wheat products, which used to be staples in my diet, such as wheat berries, barley, and bulgur wheat are also healthy whole foods. On the other hand, there is now a plethora of formulated gluten free processed foods that are just as unhealthy as other processed foods.
The truth is “gluten free” does not equal healthy! The gluten free diet is a restrictive, expensive therapeutic diet that only benefits those who have a medical reason to follow it. I am not eating gluten free because I think it’s healthier. I am eating gluten free because I have a medical diagnosis, for which the only treatment is to follow a strict gluten free diet for life.
Eating healthier can actually be more difficult on a gluten free diet. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, avoiding gluten, may result in a diet that is high in fat, low in fiber, iron, folate, B12, zinc and other vitamins and minerals.1
Why? Most of the gluten free “replacements” for things like bread, pasta, flour, cereal and other baked goods are full of refined (gluten free) flour, added sugars and fats. Trust me, I have tried a lot of gluten free foods and many of them are much greasier and lower in fiber than the regular versions. Some of them actually made me feel sick afterwards because they were so heavy! Also, most processed gluten free products are not enriched with vitamins and minerals as their gluten containing counterparts are, leading to further dietary concerns. A gluten free diet could actually be less healthy, if it involves eliminating whole grains or replacing whole grains and whole grain products, with highly refined gluten free products.
New research from Dartmouth has also shown that people who have been following a gluten free diet for a long time may have a higher exposure to arsenic from rice. Rice, which is the basis of many gluten free prepared foods and baking mixes, absorbs arsenic easily from the soil. Increased exposure from arsenic can lead to long term negative side effects such as skin, bladder and lung cancer cancer, heart disease, diabetes and impaired brain development in children. Yikes!
Myth #2. Eating gluten free is easier now than ever!
Yes, it’s true that there is more awareness of gluten free foods and more gluten free options at the grocery store. I feel extremely lucky to have gotten diagnosed with Celiac now, instead of 10 or even 20 years ago, when people like my sister, had to go to specialty foods stores to and rely on meager gluten free options that mostly tasted like soggy cardboard.
However, following a 100% gluten free diet requires a lot of time and effort, and is still very expensive and nearly impossible to follow perfectly. Even people that have had Celiac for years, and are experts at living a gluten free lifestyle, occasionally accidentally eat gluten. This happens mostly at social occasions where other people are in control of making the food. New research has also found that people who follow a strictly gluten free diet may have a lower quality of life due to increased stress and anxiety.
Myth #3 Eating Gluten Free is Cheap! (okay, not really a myth, but I just want to point this out!)
Pretty much anything that’s specially formulated to be gluten free is going to cost twice as much for half as much volume as a normal version. For example: on Amazon, regular oats cost $0.06 per ounce, certified gluten free oats cost $0.17 per ounce. That’s a 280% increase in cost! Here’s another example. Whole wheat flour cost $0.04 per ounce. Gluten free flours cost between $0.20-$0.83 per ounce. That means gluten free flours cost 5-20x more than standard 100% whole wheat flour! Yikes! Gluten free bread is also much more costly than regular bread, at about $5.00 -$7.00 per loaf.
Myth #4 Eating at restaurants is easier than ever because they all offer gluten free options.
For people with Celiac disease or food allergies, eating at restaurants and other people’s homes can be very stressful. Because eating “gluten free” has become so trendy, food service establishments don’t take it as seriously as they should be for people who actually have Celiac or a gluten intolerance that requires a strict gluten free diet. I have encountered wait staff that say something is gluten free but don’t actually know what that means or know for sure if it is gluten free. Many places that offer gluten free options or “gluten friendly” options can’t guarantee their foods are safe from cross contamination, and are therefore not truly gluten free. Yes, there are a lot more gluten free options, but unfortunately, not all of them are safe for people with Celiac to eat.
For example, there are three pizza establishments in my community that offer gluten free crusts, but when I called them and told them I had Celiac disease, they all said I couldn’t eat any of their pizzas because they would all be contaminated with wheat flour from their kitchen.
Myth #5: Eating a healthy diet involves eliminating certain foods from your diet
Many people are jumping on the gluten free bandwagon because they mistakenly believe that eating gluten free is inherently healthy. However, unlike limiting other foods such as processed meats, added sugars, refined carbs and solids fats, there are no health benefits to eliminating gluten, unless you have a health condition that requires you to do so. My advice to people who are trying to improve their diet is to focus on cutting back on “empty calories,” from sweetened beverages, refined carbs, “junk food,” and fried foods, and focus on eating more whole foods. Read more about my healthy eating philosophy here.
Healthy eating does not involve strictly avoiding certain foods. That being said, many people do have to strictly avoid certain foods for health reasons, such as food allergies, intolerances, metabolic disorders or autoimmune diseases, such as Celiac disease. If you think you may have Celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, first talk with your primary care doctor or a gastroenterologist about your concerns before starting on a gluten free diet. Accurately diagnosing Celiac disease requires lab work, biopsies of the small intestine, and a positive response to a gluten free diet. Secondly, if you have a health condition that requires you to avoid gluten or other foods, meet with a Registered Dietitian to help you navigate a medically restricted diet in the healthiest way possible!