The wheat industry wants you to believe that gluten and other grain-based foods are necessary for health. But how healthy are they really? And do they need to be a part of your fatigue-fighting nutrition plan?
I’m confident it will come as no surprise to you that in order to beat fatigue and start flourishing you’re going to need adequate levels of vitamins and minerals. Deficiencies in vitamins like b12 or minerals like iron are common causes of fatigue. So it goes without saying, though I’ll say it anyway, that a fatigue-busting diet needs to be high in bioavailable vitamins and minerals.
According to most country’s Food Guides, adults should be consuming six to eight servings of grain products each day. As you know, more often than not, grain products contain gluten. (1)
Is such a high daily recommendation based on the nutrients found in grains? Or are these vitamins and minerals better obtained from other sources?
To best compare the “healthiness” of a food, Dr. Mathieu LaLonde developed a unique scale. He calls it the nutrient density scale. And at the time of this writing, it’s likely the best way to analyze the nutrient quantity and quality of food. (2) Dr. LaLonde, PhD., is a lecturer at Harvard University who specializes in chemical biology but also studies human metabolism, nutritional biochemistry, health, and athletic performance. Needless to say, he’s an expert when it comes to understanding the vitamins and minerals found in our food.
Dr. LaLonde uses a simple formula to calculate the nutrient density of a food:
Nutrient Density = Essential Nutrients Per Serving / Weight Per Serving
This means that the nutrient density of a specific food item depends on the number of essential nutrients divided by the weight of a typical serving. A food may be high in calories, but if it contains a low amount of essential nutrients it will have a low ranking.
Just how healthy is gluten?
Below, you will find the average Nutrient Density Score of Selected Food Categories adapted from Dr. LaLonde. Foods are ranked from the most nutrient dense to the least.
|1. Organ meats (eg. liver, kidney)||21.3|
|2. Herbs & spices||12.3|
|3. Cacao (the bean that makes cocoa and chocolate)||7.5|
|4. Fish & seafood||6.0|
|6. Lamb & wild game||4.0|
|7. Raw vegetables||3.8|
|9. Eggs & dairy||3.1|
|11. Processed meat (eg. bacon, deli meat)||2.8|
|13. Cooked vegetables||2.0|
|15. Plant fat & oils (eg. olive oil, canola oil)||1.4|
|16. Grains & pseudo-grains (eg. wheat,amaranth, quinoa)||1.2|
From a strict gram-for-gram comparison, the nutrient density scale is very accurate. Foods at the top of the scale, such as organ meats, fish, beef, and lamb are much more nutrient dense than a food category at the lower end of the scale such as oils, fruits, and bread.
To overcome fatigue, one of the first steps you’re going to want to undertake is dietary changes. Your diet should be free from foods that your body reacts to and high in vitamins/minerals. By adding a serving (or two) of organ meats each week, you’ll be dramatically improving your vitamin and mineral content. This should improve your chances of increased energy and alleviation of fatigue.
How does gluten compare to other foods
In order to determine whether (or not) a food is healthy, there needs to be some sort of scale or metric that defines what healthiness is. I believe the nutrient density scale is our best resource for determining what makes a food healthy.
Grains are a key part of the recommended diet in all government-sponsored meal plans. What do they contain that make them so important to your daily diet? Why do governments continue to recommend you eat wheat products? Are they really that healthy?
Take a look at the vitamin and mineral profile of 100g of whole wheat bread, ranked #16 for nutrient density, vs. 100g of roasted beef sirloin, ranked #5:
|Vitamins & Minerals||
100g of whole
|100g of roasted
beef sirloin (4)
|Vitamin A||3.0IU; 0% DV||0.0IU; 0% DV|
|Vitamin C||0.0 mg; 0% DV||0.0 mg; 0% DV|
|Vitamin E||0.8 mg; 4% DV||0.4 mg; 2% DV|
|Vitamin K||9.4 mcg; 12% DV||1.4 mcg; 2% DV|
|Thiamin||0.3 mg; 20% DV||0.1 mg; 5% DV|
|Riboflavin||0.2 mg; 13% DV||0.1 mg; 8% DV|
|Niacin||4.0mg; 20% DV||7.8 mg; 39% DV|
|Vitamin B6||0.2 mg; 10% DV||0.5 mg; 27% DV|
|Folate||65 mcg; 16% DV||9.0 mcg; 2% DV|
|Folic Acid||8.3 mcg||0.0 mcg; 0% DV|
|Calcium||33 mg; 3% DV||15 mg; 1% DV|
|Iron||3.1 mg; 17% DV||1.8 mg; 10% DV|
|Magnesium||81 mg; 20% DV||22 mg; 5% DV|
|Phosphorus||187 mg; 19% DV||202 mg; 20% DV|
|Potassium||314 mg; 9% DV||324 mg; 9% DV|
|Sodium||346 mg; 14% DV||54 mg; 2% DV|
|Zinc||1.5 mg; 10% DV||4.9 mg; 33% DV|
|Copper||0.3 mg; 13% DV||0.1 mg; 4% DV|
|Manganese||1.9 mg; 94% DV||0.0 mg; 1% DV|
|Selenium||38.6 mcg; 55% DV||29.9 mcg; 43% DV|
The DV% is the recommended daily value of each vitamin/mineral. All numbers are based on a 2000 calorie diet.
Gram for gram, beef sirloin has significantly more vitamins and minerals than whole wheat bread. But bread does seem to be a good source of manganese, selenium, and some b vitamins. I’ll address ways to replace the nutrients you lose after following a gluten or grain free diet below.
How healthy is gluten?
When putting together a nutrition plan aimed at increasing your energy and overcoming fatigue, you’re going to need to ensure you have all of your vitamins and minerals. If gluten or grains are consumed for 6+ servings, it’s safe to assume you’re going to be deficient in a lot of vitamins and minerals.
I want to bring your attention to another important facet of vitamins and minerals in the context of alleviating fatigue: bioavailability. Bioavailability is the proportion of a vitamin/mineral or substance that enters the circulation when introduced into the body and so is able to have an active effect. The key words here are active effects. A vitamin/mineral is not useful if your body cannot utilize it.
The nutrient density scale does not take into account the bioavailability of vitamins and minerals. If it did, grains and legumes would be ranked even lower. Why? Because these plants have specific enzymes that stop your digestive tract from extracting nutrients. Let’s use iron as an example below:
If you have fatigue, one of the first labs you should have run is iron. Low levels of iron (or ferritin) are commonly associated with fatigue. In order to increase iron, you could eat spinach, lentils, and whole wheat bread as all are high in iron. Unfortunately, these food products have what is called non-heme iron.
Non-heme iron is challenging for your body to absorb. Research suggests no more than 7% of non-heme iron is absorbed. (5) Compare this with iron found in animal products that has absorption rates greater than 20%. Iron is just one example of the vitamins and minerals found in wheat/grain products that challenge your body’s ability to extract the nutrition from a food.
What if you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity?
If you react to wheat/gluten, you should follow a gluten-free diet. The immune reaction caused by eating foods you’re allergic/sensitive to will increase your fatigue. You can easily make up the missing vitamins and minerals by eating a diverse, whole food diet. Below, I detail exactly what foods to eat when you go gluten free.
What vitamins and minerals do you lose after starting a gluten-free diet?
As products containing gluten, specifically wheat, are so popular and widely consumed, wheat flour is fortified or enriched with vitamins and minerals that historically have been difficult to source. The fortification of wheat was first introduced in the 1940s. However, since then our society has seen advances in food transportation and storage so the vitamins and minerals that were difficult to find in the mid-1900s are now much more accessible.
Two such minerals that gluten bread contains are manganese and selenium.
Manganese is required by the body for proper enzyme functioning, nutrient absorption, wound healing, and bone development. If you’ve gone gluten-free, the best non-gluten dietary sources of manganese include:
- Hazelnuts, containing 78% of your daily recommended intake in one ounce;
- Pumpkin seeds, containing 64% of your daily recommended intake in one ounce;
- Mussels, containing 96% of your daily recommended intake in one ounce.
Selenium is a trace mineral that works as an antioxidant, especially in conjunction with vitamin E. It helps fight damaging particles in the body known as free radicals which can damage cell membranes and DNA and contribute to health conditions such as:
- Thyroid dysfunction,
- Weakened immune system,
- Infertility in men and women,
- Heart disease,
- Increased risk of cancer.
The recommended dietary allowance for selenium is 55 mcg/day. Like manganese, it is possible to find sources of selenium other than in products containing gluten. These include:
- Brazil nuts, which contain 100% of the daily value in one ounce;
- Yellowfin tuna, that contains 30% of the daily value in one ounce;
- Halibut, containing 23% of the daily value in one ounce.
Additional vitamins/minerals found in wheat products
Bread is enriched with many other vitamins and minerals. But remember, these are challenging for your body to absorb due to the low level of bioavailability. If you’re dealing with fatigue, you’re going to want to ensure your vitamins are incredibly bioavailable. Below, I’ve listed the most bioavailable sources of vitamins and minerals that you may be missing out on after going grain-free.
- Vitamin K (naturally sourced in green, leafy vegetables),
- Thiamin (also found in pork, fish, seafood, nuts and seeds),
- Niacin (sourced in tuna, chicken, and certain mushrooms)
- Folic acid (available in dark green vegetables and dried legumes),
- Iron (found in meat, fish, poultry as well as dried beans, peas, lentils and some fruits and vegetables).
As you can see, if you eat a well-balanced diet consisting of a variety of meat, fish, seafood, colorful vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes you’re likely to surpass the levels of these vitamins and minerals you consumed while eating gluten. This alone should increase your energy levels and put you well on your way to overcoming fatigue!
Remember, going gluten-free should not be about replacing all your usual foods with their gluten-free alternatives. More often than not these alternative products contain excessive amounts of sugar and salt in an effort to make up for the taste of certain gluten-free grains. In addition, gluten-free grains are not fortified with any of the vitamins or minerals wheat flour contains and often lose what nutritional value they have through processing.
Instead, a gluten-free diet should be about replacing grains with nutrient-dense, whole foods. If you substitute grains for any of the top 10 foods found on Dr. LaLonde’s list, you’ll be well on your way to maintaining a healthy vitamin and mineral supply.
Now, I want to hear from you!
How has your diet changed since removing gluten?
Also published on Medium.