Is Gluten Free Healthier?
It depends. It is estimated that 1% of the US population has Celiac disease, a severe allergy in which the protein in wheat destroys their intestines, though many are misdiagnosed. For these people gluten-free is not only healthier, but the only way to avoid miserable health problems.
While it needs to be studied further, it is roughly estimated that 10% of Americans have a gluten or wheat sensitivity, which means they feel better if they avoid it but don’t have a full blown allergy. Avoiding it is healthier for these individuals as well, though for those with only a mild sensitivity a reduction could be enough.
That leaves about 90% of Americans. For these Americans there is no reason to be on a gluten free diet. In fact, replacing common foods with gluten-free alternatives is often less healthy because they are not required to be fortified. If you have no allergies or sensitivities, whole grain wheat products can be a convenient and healthy part of your diet.
While your doctor can test your for Celiac disease, the only way to know if you are sensitive to it is to cut it out of your diet for about two weeks and see how you feel. If you feel better, you may decide to eliminate or reduce your intake. To do so in a healthy way be sure to choose whole foods that are naturally gluten free – such as vegetables, legumes, and brown rice – rather than processed alternatives such as gluten-free breakfast cereal or biscuits. The gluten-free version of an unhealthy food is still just as unhealthy.
There are a few things make a gluten-free lifestyle appear healthier, but they are misleading.
- First, many people feel better if they reduce or eliminate grains in general. These are people who thrive on a Paleo diet. Eliminating grains improves their digestive track, raises their energy levels, and helps them shed weight with less effort. This doesn’t mean a gluten free lifestyle is healthier for everybody, just that a significant portion of the population thrives without grains in general. It’s misleading to use these statistics to sell items like gluten-free bread, which just replace wheat with another grain.
- Second, wheat is one of the most commonly genetically modified crops in the United States. While there is good reason to be concerned about GMOs, research has not proven any adverse health effects. Perhaps the right study has not yet been done, or perhaps they are safer than they sound. In any case, replacing wheat with other common GMOs such as corn clearly would defeat the purpose.
- Finally, wheat is a popular ingredient in processed, nutrient-deficient foods. Eliminating processed grains such as white bread, cake, and crackers makes most people feel much better. Replacing them with whole foods improves digestion, immunity, and pain due to inflammation. Replacing them with gluten-free bread, cake, and crackers does not provide any of those benefits.While the gluten-free industry can find plenty of data to support its interests, much of its claims are misleading. Most people gain nothing by switching to gluten-free alternatives of the same food. For the roughly 10% who do benefit from eliminating it, it is best to do so by switching to naturally gluten-free whole foods. Overall, the hype about a gluten-free lifestyle is unwarranted.