350,000 Canadians have celiac disease. But more than ten million Canadians purchase gluten-free products. Are gluten-free foods actually healthy? Or, are they contributing to other illnesses?
Canada’s gluten-free market has been growing by nearly 30% per year since 2008. (1) In fact, the gluten-free movement is the most popular food allergy the marketplace has ever seen. If you don’t think the gluten-free diet is gaining traction, consider the following: (2, 3)
- In the United States, 25% of adults said they were decreasing gluten consumption or removing it completely.
- 31% of Americans not following a gluten-free diet were interested in trying it.
- Gluten-free items on Canadian restaurant menus have increased 137% in the past three years.
- The global gluten-free market is predicted to reach $6.2 billion by 2018.
There’s a lot of hype behind going gluten-free. The most common reasons one adopts a gluten-free diet are: (4)
- Digestive health
- Nutritional value
- Weight loss
- Healthier skin
- Joint pain relief
- Mental function
- Stress relief
- Part of a cleanse
- Depression relief
- Celiac disease
Notice how celiac disease makes up less than 5% of the reasons why one adopts a gluten-free diet. This may be due to the low levels of celiac disease found in the Canadian population. Estimates put the incidence of celiac disease somewhere between 1-3% of the population or 350,000 – 1,050,000 Canadians. (5, 6) Or, the majority of people may be adopting a gluten-free diet due to media sensationalism and hype.
Grocery stores now have entire sections dedicated to gluten-free products. It’s likely that someone you know is already following the diet. And raving about how good they feel.
I came across this news article the other day. It suggests that for those without celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is less healthy than a diet that contains gluten.
In this article, I de-bunk the unhealthiness theory and explain why we we’re asking the wrong question when it comes to a gluten-free diet.
What exactly is gluten-free?
Before jumping into whether or not a gluten-free diet is healthy, it’s important we understand exactly what constitutes a gluten-free product. If you’re unfamiliar with what gluten is, start with this post.
In Canada, mandatory gluten-free labeling by manufacturers came into effect in 2012. For a product to be considered gluten-free it needs to have less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of the gluten protein. To conceptualize what 20ppm means in practical terms, imagine cutting a piece of bread into a million pieces. If you were to set twenty of those pieces aside, that would constitute 20 ppm, or, the safe upper limit of gluten consumption for one with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
In order for a food product to be certified gluten-free, the manufacturer must show that the product(s) have less than 20ppm of the gluten protein. Canada is one of the few countries in the world with a regulation regarding the use of the term gluten-free. Health Canada states: (7)
It is prohibited to label, package, sell or advertise a food in a manner likely to create an impression that it is a gluten-free food if the food contains any gluten protein or modified gluten protein, including any gluten protein fraction, referred to in the definition “gluten” in subsection B.01.010.1(1).
Ok, now you know what makes a product gluten-free. Let’s see if gluten-free is as healthy as the media says it is.
Are gluten-free products healthy?
Are gluten-free products healthy? Well, that depends.
What is the metric we should use to determine whether a food is healthy or unhealthy?
Some common ways to measure the “healthiness” of a food include:
- Fat content
- Calorie content
- Sugar content
- Sodium content
- Gluten-free; dairy-free; soy-free; etc.
Each of these only takes into account a small aspect of a food. It’s a part of the picture. But certainly not the whole picture. Consider that a medium-sized apple has nearly 20 grams of sugar in it. Or, a cup of fish oil has an entire day worth of calories. I’m confident that you’d be hard-pressed to argue that fish oil and apples are unhealthy.
Taking a reductionist approach to nutrition results in sweeping generalities. This is how claims like “fat is bad” or, “gluten-free diets are unhealthy” get spread. If we approach nutrition solely from a calorie in vs calorie out; then we’re left with the assumption that 2000 calories from kool-aid is the same as 2000 calories from chicken, fish, and vegetables.
In order to determine whether a food is healthy or not, a new metric needs to be measured. One more detailed than the simple amount of calories, or the fat/sugar/sodium content. Dr. Matt LaLane came up with this very scale. He calls it the nutrient density scale.
The nutrient density measures the vitamin/mineral content in one gram of a given food. I believe that measuring nutrients (vitamins/minerals) is a far better metric to track than calories, sodium, fat content etc. To learn more about the nutrient density scale, please see this post.
After viewing the nutrient density scale, you’ll see that organ meat is the most nutritious food we can eat. Organ meats are followed closely by other meat products, vegetables, and fruits. Grains are at the very bottom of the scale. Whether the grain contains gluten or not, it’s not very nutritious.
So, is a gluten-free diet healthy?
I believe the issue here is not about gluten VS no gluten. Instead, the argument should be framed towards refined and processed foods VS natural, or whole food products. Whether your macaroni contains gluten or not is beside the point. Macaroni is devoid of most beneficial nutrients. As are most pastas, grains, and breads.
Eating a gluten-free grain, pasta, or bread does not make the food any healthier.
Don’t studies show gluten-free diets to be unhealthy?
Yes, they do. But there’s a caveat.
A Spanish study did find gluten-free diets to be unhealthy. (8) However, they defined unhealthy by gluten-free products being higher in fat and calories and having less protein than gluten-containing products.
A product’s calorie content is not enough to discern whether it is healthy or not. Nor is the fat content. According to the nutrient density scale, cucumbers (which have very little calories) have far less nutrition than eggs (which are calorie dense). Foods high in fat are some of the healthiest foods we can eat. Salmon, for example, is very high in fat. Though, I doubt you’d consider it unhealthy.
Other studies have shown the gluten-free diet to increase the risk of heart disease. (9) The issue with the gluten-free diet being unhealthy or that it causes heart disease is that in these studies, the researchers simply replaced glutenous products with a gluten-free alternative. I believe the real issue is one of refined food products. Specifically, refined carbohydrates.
The average Canadian gets more than 50% of his/her calories from carbohydrates. (10) For many, the majority of these calories are coming from refined grains. Both gluten and gluten-free refined products are unhealthy. Both should be consumed in modest quantities (if at all). Unless you have a known allergy or sensitivity to gluten, gluten-free cookies are no healthier than cookies full of gluten. We’ve got the whole healthy/unhealthy equation wrong.
Instead of thinking about whether to eat gluten-free products, you should consider how you can replace grains with real-food alternatives. Try using zucchini or spaghetti squash in place of refined pasta (be it gluten-free or not). Replacing refined foods with whole plant and animal foods will improve your diet far more than eating gluten-free products ever could.
Rethinking the gluten-free diet
At the time of this writing, researchers are unsure as to the prevalence of gluten-sensitivities. Estimates range anywhere from 7% of the global population all the way up to 30% of the population. (11, 12, 13) In this post, I discuss a theory explaining why so many humans react to gluten and wheat-related products.
With the possibility of 30% of the population reacting to gluten, it’s no wonder why so many people claim to benefit from a gluten-free diet. While a gluten-free diet may be of benefit in the short-term, the continued consumption of refined grains will still enact a cost. Refined food products exert a large spike in blood sugar levels. (14) This occurs whether they contain gluten or not.
With nearly 10% of the Canadian population already diabetic. (15) And 25% of the population at risk of developing diabetes, removing refined grains will be of great benefit. If the entire existence of humans was the length of a football field, we’ve only been consuming grains for the last half yard of that field.
The argument should not be gluten vs gluten-free foods. The argument should be focused on refined/processed foods vs whole foods. A whole food diet will be naturally gluten-free. And incredibly high in bioavailable vitamins and minerals. If you follow a whole food diet, you’ll be healthier.
I recommend using gluten-free products as a stepping stone towards a whole food diet. Going gluten-free can feel overwhelming. The gluten-free products can act as training wheels as you transition your diet. To learn more about how to go gluten-free, check out this post.
Should you go gluten-free?
If you’ve followed my work at any length, you’ll know that I’m a strong supporter of a gluten-free diet. But I feel there needs to be clarification on what it means to go gluten-free.
Gluten-free does not mean:
- Swapping all your gluten-containing foods for their gluten-free alternatives.
- Continuing to eat large quantities of refined carbohydrates.
- Disregarding foods effect on your blood sugar, weight, cholesterol, or other markers of health.
- A 30-day cleanse or diet followed by a return to your previous eating habits.
- Identifying how gluten (and other foods) affect your health.
- Removing all foods (not just gluten) that have a negative impact on your health.
- Substituting refined foods for real, whole foods.
- Determining your ideal protein, fat, and carbohydrate tolerance.
- Making these changes a part of your life.
While not perfect, laboratory testing, does offer the most objective and accurate way to determine if you react to gluten. At the time of this writing, cyrex labs offers the most comprehensive gluten testing available. I recommend working a knowledgeable functional medicine practitioner to accurately determine gluten’s effect on your body!
Now, it’s time for me to hear from you!
What does your gluten-free diet look like?
Also published on Medium.