The wheat industry wants you to believe that gluten and other grain-based foods are healthy. The gluten-free crowd wants you to believe that gluten is evil.
But how healthy is either of these products, really?
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 nutrition plan 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?
What makes food healthy?
To best compare the “healthiness” of 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 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.
A closer look at the healthiness of gluten and gluten-free foods
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.
Both gluten and gluten-free grains are not all that healthy. If you want to ensure you’re getting an adequate amount of vitamins and minerals, you’d be wise to eat foods closer to the top of this chart.
A gluten-free diet is not healthier than a diet that contains gluten. Both gluten and gluten-free foods are poor sources of vitamins and minerals.
The first step of a gluten-free diet usually involves swapping gluten-containing foods for their gluten-free equivalents. Bread and pasta are now of the gluten-free variety.
The real healthiness of a gluten-free diet occurs when you swap refined grains for nutrient-dense, whole foods.
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.
Is gluten healthier than 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 the 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 grains and gluten possess that make them so important in a 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.
Why gluten and gluten-free foods may be even more unhealthy than you thought
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 gluten-free foods 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 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.
Because these plants have specific enzymes that stop your digestive tract from extracting nutrients. Let’s use iron as an example. 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 these foods 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 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, are widely consumed, these products get 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 whole wheat bread contains are manganese and selenium.
Manganese is required by your body for proper enzyme functioning, nutrient absorption, wound healing, and bone development. If you’ve gone gluten-free, the best non-gluten 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
- A 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 in foods that are gluten-free. 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.
The vitamins and mineral you’ll need after going gluten-free
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.
Below, I’ve listed the most bioavailable sources of vitamins and minerals that you may be missing out on after going gluten-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!
How to make gluten-free healthy
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 lack of taste found in 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. In all likelihood, gluten-free bread, pasta, cookies, etc. are less healthy than bread, pasta, cookies, etc that contain gluten.
Gluten-free does not equate to healthy.
Don’t think for a second that by swapping all your gluten products for their gluten-free alternatives that you’re now eating healthier. You’ll most likely be decreasing your vitamin and mineral content further. And that’s not very healthy.
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.
Remember this one rule:
If a food can rot, it’s a whole food. It will be packed with healthy vitamins and minerals. But if a food can sit in your pantry for months, it’s not very healthy.
Now, I want to hear from you!
How has your diet changed since removing gluten? Leave your answer in the comments section below!
Also published on Medium.