Update: Gluten-Free and Unhealthy?

Just because grain-based processed foods don’t contain wheat doesn’t mean they are good for you.

Gluten-free products continue to pile up on supermarket shelves — and in the diets of millions of people — while poor health skyrockets. It’s a multi-million-dollar industry but the fact remains most gluten-free foods are just junk without the wheat.

While processed food is the overriding health concern for most, gluten may be a problem for many people. This protein found in wheat, rye and barley, can trigger a variety of signs and symptoms in many people. “Only” about 1 percent of the population may have celiac disease, but many others are wheat-intolerant. This adds up to millions of people.

While those with celiac disease must eliminate and strictly avoid all gluten, completely ridding your diet of gluten is easier said than done. Going gluten-free typically still results in significant amounts of gluten consumption that contributes to symptoms and intestinal damage. Even if you buy gluten-free products, just a few crumbs can impair a person with celiac — in fact, 10 mg is enough to cause problems. This can come from a minuscule dusting of food at a farm, manufacturing plant, deli, restaurant or in your own home or office.

Sometimes, the over-vocal gluten-free fanatics don’t help the situation. They are mostly holier-than-thou proponents of fad diets that feed the trend of this relatively new industry serving up a vast array of gluten-free junk foods. The gluten-free fad has been a success only for food manufacturers, who similarly excel at marketing organic junk food.

With 30 percent of Americans claiming to follow the fad, about 1 percent have celiac (accounting for millions worldwide), with smaller numbers being non-celiac gluten-sensitive. Gluten can still cause problems even for those who don’t have celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. However, many more are carbohydrate-intolerant and react badly not only to gluten but to all carbohydrates in general, especially the most common ingredients in gluten-free food — sugar and other refined grains.

While many people feel better taking gluten out of the diet, it may be because they are eliminating a lot of processed flour and sugar rather than this protein. These carbs are fermentable fructose sugars (also found in some fruits, milk and legumes) and can cause gas, diarrhea, distention and other intestinal complaints, and significantly change the intestinal flora . This microbiome in the gut can then influence virtually anything in the body, especially the brain.

Brain fog and cognitive problems, intestinal cramps and other symptoms many believe to be due to gluten exposure are more often due to junk food consumption — such as sugar and other refined carbohydrates like corn, soy and other foods. Moreover, intestinal bacteria can quickly change from good to bad with consumption of even small amounts of these foods, especially wheat.

Processed carbs are a much larger, and real problem than gluten. As a clinician, avoiding these foods has been my go-to recommendation for those with health issues large and small, and almost everyone responds well to it — at least, those who actually follow it do. It means having the discipline to avoid packaged foods when shopping, as well as most items in restaurants and at parties.

Gluten-free or not, grain-based foods should not make up any large portion of most people’s diet, if any at all. It doesn’t matter really what grains these products are made from. If you do choose to eat grain foods, it’s best to use those that are least processed.

The Gluten-free fallacy

The MAF Method focuses on eliminating processed and junk foods, and finding your own level of carbohydrate tolerance.

Many people have the misconception that gluten-free products are a healthier choice than those made from wheat. However, most are highly processed, higher in total carbs, have higher glycemic indexes than comparable wheat products, and contain other unhealthy ingredients.

In fact, about 75 percent of all packaged foods contain added sugar, and even those without it are high-glycemic or convert to sugar quickly after eating.

Most grain products tend to be a high concentration of carbs. Eating carbs like this causes the body to produce more insulin, which in turns promotes fat storage and sugar-burning at the expenses of fat-burning. That’s why grain foods are a significant contributor to the overfat pandemic.

If you wish to cut grains from your diet, consider that breads, cakes, pancakes and even desserts can be made using healthier alternatives like ground almonds and coconut flour.

9 Comments

  • Dan says:

    I agree that gluten free substitute isn’t the answer but using almond flour for baking, would cause the omega 6 acids it contains to oxidize as well (by the oven heat). Correct me if I’m wrong. Frankly, I am a little surprised by the amount of Paleo websites that almost entirely focus on providing breads and cake recipes.

  • Todd says:

    What are your thoughts on sprouted grains, such as Ezekiel bread?

    • They have generally a lower glycemic load than regular breads, but still more than whole grains. We don’t recommend them for the simple reason that they push us towards a higher sugar intake than necessary in a environment that is already so nutritionally hostile.

  • Rafa says:

    Nice text, but I am missing the reference with a link to the article in the New York Times or to the paper in Epidemiology Journal.

  • Martin says:

    I wonder how much is gluten intolerance and how much is related to the use of chemicals like Roundup used to kill wheat plants allowing drying time before harvest.

  • Iacob Gheorghita says:

    In my opinion, except for celiac disease, gluten issue is only a confounding factor used to mislead from the real issue: high processed carbs.

  • GF says:

    Do you have any evidence to back this anti whole grains assertion? There are all these doctors that articulate a whole food plant based diets where grains are significant (McDougal, Greger, Esselysten, Ornish). https://www.forksoverknives.com/the-smoke-and-mirrors-behind-wheat-belly-and-grain-brain/#gs.oypBCNY

  • Andres says:

    On one hand this article acknowledges that gluten may not be the best option, but it jumps immediately to assert that their replacement can be worst, indicating that gluten-free products usually are worse. This latter it may or may not be true, depending what are you replacing gluten food with. And that’s the problem with the article, in a binary thinking jumps from gluten food to gluten products. There is no meat, no eggs, no dairy, etc in between. Oh well…

  • Matjaz says:

    I rely on balanced food. Right proportions of animal protein, carbohydrates and as much plants as possible.

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