Beware: gluten-free does not necessarily mean it’s a healthy option

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There’s a lot of hype these days about adopting a gluten-free diet. Gluten is a substance found in cereal grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and spelt. It gives dough its elasticity when kneaded, a chewy texture when eaten, and its risibility when baking. The word gluten comes from the Latin word ‘glue’. In terms of nutrition, there’s plenty of research to suggest that many of us – and not just those who suffer with celiac disease – would do better to eliminate glutinous grains from our diets.

You may well ask why – after all, haven’t we been eating wheat and other gluten-containing foods for the past 10,000 years?

Some experts say that we’ve been eating glutinous grains for even longer than that, but in evolutionary terms 10,000 years is just a drop in the bucket, considering that homo sapiens have been on this planet for about 200,000 years.

On top of this, not only are many of us not suited to eating glutinous grains, we are certainly not adapted to eating the hybridized grains of the 20th and 21st centuries. Wheat for example, according to different sources, now has between five to 40 times the amount of gluten that ancient grains had, so you can see why we may have a problem, Houston.

The other issue when it comes to eating grains is the way that they are prepared. Sally Fallon tells us in her book Nourishing Traditions that while our ancestors may have consumed whole grains (grains naturally with and without gluten), they would not have done so as depicted in modern day cookbooks. She states: “Our ancestors and virtually all pre-industrialized peoples, soaked or fermented their grains before making them into porridge, breads, cakes, and casseroles.”

Our ancestors seemed to instinctively know that soaking or fermenting was the smart thing to do. In fact, many cultures still do continue to soak and ferment their grains (lentils, legumes, and some nuts and seeds) before either sprouting or cooking and consuming. This is in order to impede the action of phytic acid, something that all grains contain. The problem with phytic acid is that when it’s present in the gastrointestinal tract, it binds with certain minerals like zinc, copper, calcium, and magnesium, thereby blocking their absorption. It is an anti-nutrient.

As Fallon mentions, “A diet high in untreated [that is, not soaked, or fermented] whole grains may lead to serious mineral deficiencies and bone loss.”

On the other hand, “soaking allows enzymes, lactobacilli, and other helpful organisms to break down and neutralize phytic acid . . . [this] simple practice of soaking cracked or rolled grains overnight [with a drop of apple cider vinegar to acidify] will vastly improve their nutritional benefits.”

So, if you are one of the people who does much better without the glutinous grains, or if you don’t intend to take the time to prepare grains properly, perhaps it makes sense to go gluten-free altogether. There is one caveat to this advice: be wary of the array of gluten-free ‘products’ that are flooding supermarkets these days. They are not, by any stretch of the dough (ha, ha), created equal. Many of them contain overly refined, processed carbohydrates that are extremely high on the glycemic index. This is very bad news for those suffering with diabetes and not such great news for the rest of us trying to avoid it!

Typical examples of some of the less-than-healthy gluten-free foods include white rice flour, corn starch, tapioca starch, and potato starch. These ingredients are often very refined, contain little or none of their original fiber and other nutrients, are higher on the glycemic index than the original ‘whole-food’ version and, I believe, are not healthful to consume on a regular or even semi-regular basis. It seems as if almost every food manufacturer is jumping on the ‘gluten-free’ bandwagon – even touting ‘gluten-free’ on packaged foods that never contained any gluten in the first place. Does this sound familiar? Of course it does. We have been there before with so many other trends, like ‘fat-free’ ‘sugar free’, ‘zero trans-fat’, etc.

 The question is, how do we avoid what, in many cases, amounts to junk food gluten-free products? Once again, we must become avid ingredient readers. If the first ingredients listed are processed, refined carbs like cornstarch, white rice, or potato starch, the next place to look is on the Nutrition panel. Check the ‘sugars’ and ‘carbohydrates’ numbers to get a sense of how much glucose these refined carbs will convert to, once they enter your body.

Remember, just like simple sugars, all forms of refined carbohydrates have a negative effect on blood sugar levels. So, for example, if you see that your gluten-free pizza contains 62 grams of carbohydrates, yet very little fiber per serving, I suggest you leave it on the shelf. It will not be a healthy choice. Remember, fiber that occurs naturally in complex carbohydrates is crucial because it behaves a bit like a speed bump, slowing down the carbohydrates’ conversion into blood glucose. So, little to no fiber equals no speed bump. The simplest way to figure out whether there are too many carbohydrates per serving is to use the approximate equation of five grams of carbohydrates = 1 teaspoon of sugar. Using this measure, you can easily see that your slice of pizza with 62 grams of refined carbohydrates contains the equivalent to approximately a whopping 12 teaspoons of sugar. You don’t have to be an expert to know that this is too much in one sitting. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that refined carbohydrates are contributing to many chronic, degenerative health problems. In addition to the obvious one - type 2 diabetes - evidence is surfacing to suggest that they can also play havoc with our brain health, amongst other things.

Gluten-free does not automatically mean it’s a healthy option. On the contrary, some products boasting to be gluten-free can clearly be unhealthy. 

What grains are naturally gluten-free? Well, there are a few and when treated correctly – soaked, fermented or sprouted - they are extremely nutritious. Some examples include quinoa, buckwheat, millet, brown rice, wild rice, teff and oats (uncontaminated with wheat via processing in the same mill).

If you get into the habit of buying and preparing the whole grains yourself, you will save a lot of money!

These grains can be so delicious in many recipes. My favourite breakfast at the moment is a porridge blend of whole oats (groats) and buckwheat. The night before, roughly chop two tablespoons of groats along with two tablespoons of ground buckwheat (I use a coffee grinder to grind the groats). Next, place them in a small saucepan, cover with water (plus about an inch) and add a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar. In the morning, drain the porridge then add back the same amount of water and bring to a soft simmer on a very low heat. When it’s ready to eat, in about 10-15 minutes, add 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed. This absorbs the surplus water. Next, pour the porridge over some berries and half a banana or some dried fruit or half a chopped apple. Finally, add a spoonful of unrefined coconut butter or butter from grass-fed cows, a sprinkle of cinnamon and you have a nutritious, delicious breakfast that will tide you over until lunchtime – enjoy!

In good health – until next time.

Healthy habits is written by Jane Claxton-Oldfield MDN janeclaxtonoldfield@gmail.com

Geographic location: Houston

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  • Will
    November 07, 2013 - 21:02

    Totally agree gluten free is hype except for celiacs.p who actually gain weight when the go gluten free because they absorb more. Similar to gluten fears there are carb fears. Carbs don't make you fat, fat makes you fat. Previous low fat diets weren't actually low fat and had lots of refined foods.