For many folks, going gluten-free is a medical necessity. Like one percent of the population, they might have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine. Or, like millions of others, they may have a diagnosed gluten sensitivity that causes inflammation throughout the body. As the gluten-free craze grows, however, many people who steer clear of the stuff are simply looking for a healthier diet, one without heaping helpings of gluten-packed carbs. So if you’re looking to eat right, is gluten-free the way to go?
“The gluten-free diet in itself is not necessarily a healthy diet,” says Suzanne Simpson, a dietitian at the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University in New York City. For overall health, getting rid of this whole-grain protein isn’t a direct path to weight loss, more energy, or better health. If you’re looking to go easy on pasta, breads, and other gluten-heavy processed carbs, that’s a good thing, and going gluten-free will ensure that you stay away from the pastry case at your favorite coffee shop. But people often don’t lose weight when they eat gluten free, in part because there are now gluten-free versions of their favorite carb bombs. “People can definitely lose weight if they eat a lot of bagels and pasta and muffins. and they just remove those from their diet. But it’s not because they’re gluten-free; it’s because they removed a lot of calories,” says Simpson. “If they replace those with gluten-free muffins and pasta and bagels, they’re not going to lose weight, because that stuff has the same – if not more – calories than the gluten-containing products.”
Those gluten-free substitutes are often made with ingredients such as white rice flour, milled corn flour, even potato or corn starch – carbs with less fiber and higher glycemic indices than the original foods people are trying to avoid. Looking at a wide survey of the glycemic index of gluten-free and gluten containing foods, one study found that they are nearly identical. In other words, if you’re going gluten-free to lower your blood sugar from carbohydrates, then you are choosing the wrong diet. What’s more, wheat-based pastas and breads are often enriched with B-vitamins and iron, whereas their gluten-free counterparts aren’t, says dietitian Tricia Thompson, author of The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide. You’re still getting the carbs, but you’re not getting any of the good stuff. “They’re just substituting one set of junk food for another set of junk food,” she says. “It happens to be labeled gluten-free, but it’s still junk.”
Thompson suggests a simpler rule: Switch your focus from avoiding gluten to sticking with whole grains. “You can have whole wheat, you can have products made of barley and rye, and you can have the naturally gluten-free grains” – quinoa, amaranth, and millet, to name a few – “which are very healthy.” If going gluten-free helps to guide you to a healthier diet – full of fruits, vegetables, and gluten-free whole grains – then it’s a rule to follow, whether or not you’re gluten-sensitive. But if your idea of gluten free is a bucket of hot wings, French fries, a cherry coke, and a rice-flour cupcake (a perfectly gluten-free meal), then you aren’t doing yourself any favors: There are better dietary changes for your health.