Gluten Free … For All?

Over the years, people have tried a slew of fad diets for their supposed health benefits and weight loss claims. The most recent trend: gluten-free. If you are confused about the gluten-free trend, you are not alone. Many Americans believe this diet is healthy… but is it?


What is Gluten, Anyway?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It is what gives elasticity to bread and gives baked goods that delicious chewy texture. Gluten is found in a wide variety of foods, both those rich in carbohydrates – such as pasta, bread, cereal, and baked goods – and those that are not – such as soy sauce, chocolate, gravies and sauces, and a variety of manufactured products. Because gluten is found in certain grains, there is a common misconception that gluten can be used interchangeably with “starch” and “carbohydrate” and that a “gluten-free diet” is the same as a “low carbohydrate” diet.

This is not the case. Gluten comes from a grain, but not all gluten containing products fall under the category of “carbohydrates or starches.” Likewise, not all starches contain gluten.

Who Exactly Should Eat Gluten-Free?

The gluten-free diet was originally designed for people with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that damages the intestinal track when gluten is ingested. When intestines are damaged vitamins and minerals may not be absorbed, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies, bone damage, and even some forms of cancer if left untreated. Symptoms include fatigue, diarrhea, cramping, bloating, and joint pain.

Celiac disease affects about 1% of the American population. For celiac suffers, the benefits of a gluten-free diet are innumerable. But is it necessary, or even healthy, for the rest of the population to eliminate gluten?

Some people might experience symptoms similar to celiac without intestinal damage. These people might be diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity or intolerance. These individuals will likely also benefit from a gluten free diet. However, for most people it is not necessary or healthy to follow a gluten-free diet.

Gluten itself may not contain any special health benefits, but the whole grains in which gluten is found do! They are rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, zinc, iron, as well as fiber. Eliminating these products from your diet without making nutritional substitutions can lead to deficiencies. Also, studies show  incorporating whole grains into a healthy diet may lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer. Gluten-free products also tend to be more expensive and higher in calories, fat, and carbohydrates than their gluten-containing counterparts. (See chart below.)

Some people try a gluten-free diet in response to feeling fatigued and bloated and find that reducing gluten correlates with feeling better and losing weight. However, this outcome may simply be related to the reduction of unhealthy, high-calorie foods. So instead of choosing a life absent from delicious and nutritious foods like bread, pasta, and cereals, why not try something else? A piece of fruit, perhaps. Or some exercise.

Comparison of Gluten-Containing and Gluten-Free Products
Item Calories Fat Carbs Sugar Price
Udi’s Gluten-Free White Bread (2 slices) 140 3.5 22 3 $5.99/12 oz pkg
Pepperidge Farm’s White Bread (2 slices) 130 2.5 23 3 $3.99/ 24 oz pkg
Udi’s Gluten-Free Whole Wheat Hamburger Roll (1 roll) 180 5 31 4 $4.49/4 pkg
Pepperidge Farm Whole Wheat Hamburger Roll (1 roll) 110 1.5 19 2 $3.29/8 pkg
Udi’s Gluten-Free Plain Bagel (3.5 oz) 290 9 43 5 $4.99/4pkg
Thomas’ Plain Bagel (3.4 oz) 260 2 51 6 $3.99/6 pkg
Domino’s Gluten-Free Cheese Pizza (1 slice – 2.4 oz portion) 140 7 15 1 $11.99/10” pizza
Domino’s Cheese Pizza (2.4 oz portion) 155 6 18 1.5 $8.99/10” pizza
Au Bon Pain Gluten-Free Brownie (3.5 oz portion) 430 24 53 45 $2.89/3.5 oz
Au Bon Pain Chocolate Chip Brownie (3.5 oz portion) 385 18 54 34 $2.79/4 oz
Better Crocker Gluten-Free Brownie, Prepared (1 oz) 150 5 24 18 $4.39/16 oz pkg
Betty Crocker Brownie, Prepared (1 oz) 160 6 26 19 $2.29/18 oz pkg

About the author:

Erin Boudreau is a dietetic intern completing her year-long comprehensive training in nutrition at MGH. She completed her Associate’s degree in Culinary Arts and her Bachelor’s degree in Culinary Nutrition at Johnson & Wales University in 2011. Erin enjoys baking for friends, playing with her dog, and is currently training to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Her goal is to work with kids, families, and athletes to help maximize their nutrition and lifestyle goals.

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Our Be Fit Nutritionists are comprised of dietetic interns studying at Massachusetts General Hospital. During their internship, they receive training on acute care nutrition, ambulatory and community nutrition, food service systems management, and research. Their comprehensive work is done in collaboration with registered dietitians.

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