Gluten and Grains: Making Sense of the Headlines

By now, you probably know someone who has gone off gluten or grains entirely. Maybe you’ve even done it yourself. And if you’re like many people, you still have questions about these foods. After all, they’ve been the target of diets for several years now. You may wonder: What’s so bad about them? And should I give them up?

While almost no foods are inherently “bad,” the concerns are mounting around gluten and even grains. Let’s explore the questions you may have and the science behind the headlines, so you can make decisions that make sense for your health.

What’s the Difference Between Gluten and Grains?
Gluten is a constituent of certain grains:

  • Gluten: A protein found in the grains wheat, barley and rye. Foods made from or containing these grains, such as most pasta, breads, cookies and crackers, as well as some condiments, alcohols and food additives, contain gluten. Gluten helps baked goods rise and hold their shape, and it lends a satisfyingly chewy mouth-feel to the finished product; it’s also commonly added to processed foods as a thickening and flavoring agent. People with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity are unable to digest gluten properly.
  • Grains: Cereal grains such as wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal and barley, and products made from them, like bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, tortillas and grits. Grains can be whole—meaning they contain the bran, germ and endosperm—or refined—meaning they’ve been processed to eliminate the fibrous bran and germ. Eating whole grains ensures you’re getting the additional dietary fiber. Several grains are naturally gluten-free: amaranth, arrowroot, buckwheat, corn/cornmeal/hominy, millet, quinoa, rice and teff.

Should I Go Off Gluten?
Foods that contain gluten—especially whole grains with B vitamins, fiber and other important nutrients—can be part of a balanced diet.

That said, a completely gluten-free diet is the only guaranteed treatment for celiac disease, a hereditary autoimmune condition that causes serious damage to the small intestine and can lead to health problems including malnourishment, osteoporosis and anemia. While celiac disease affects approximately one in 100 Americans, 18 million more people are thought to have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), an immune reaction to foods with gluten. If you have NCGS, your symptoms may be much the same as those of celiac disease, and you’ll also do better by eliminating gluten from your diet.

While a gluten-free diet is necessary for celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, we believe that gluten may be an inflammatory molecule that could promote inflammation throughout the body. We frequently recommend a gluten-free diet for patients with a bowel disorder, such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease or even just recurrent gas and bloating. A gluten-free diet is also foundational to our approach to any autoimmune disorder, such as multiple sclerosis or Hashimoto thyroiditis, as gluten may provoke the inflammation that is characteristic of these disorders.

Are Gluten-Free Foods Healthier for Me Even If I Don’t Need to Eliminate Gluten?
Highly processed gluten-free foods aren’t more nutritious for you than their gluten-containing counterparts; junk food is still junk food, even without the gluten. Rather than stocking your pantry with packaged gluten-free foods, focus on including whole foods. Eliminating processed snack foods and baked goods gives you a chance to broaden how you see vegetables: Spaghetti squash, peas, winter squash and sweet potatoes are interesting replacements for pasta, for example. Beans and lentils can help round out a veggie-heavy soup, or mix them with Italian tuna (jarred in olive oil) or chicken.

If you’re cutting back on gluten, grains like teff or quinoa can take the place of breakfast cereal, and many baked goods can be made with nut flours in place of wheat. When only a cracker will do, choose products containing whole grains that are naturally gluten-free, like amaranth or wild rice. Our article, Your Guide to Gluten-free Eating, can help you make safe, nutritious choices.

Will Cutting Out Gluten Help Me Lose Weight?
That depends. “When people who truly have celiac disease drop the gluten out of their diet, they may tend to gain weight,” says Lisa Powell, M.S., R.D.N., director of nutrition at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “Their absorption improves and the calories they eat are utilized by the body more effectively.”

For those who don’t have celiac disease, there is some thought that reducing inflammation by avoid gluten may be a valuable weight-management strategy. “It won’t hurt you to eat a gluten-free diet, so we would support someone who was interested in a GF diet to see if it assists with weight loss,” Powell says. But remember: Gluten-free processed foods may put inches on your waistline. That’s because these packaged foods often contain more sugar and fat than their gluten-containing counterparts in order to replicate the mouth-feel that’s lost when the gluten is eliminated. If your goal is weight loss and you want to try going gluten-free, emphasize whole foods over processed ones.

What are “Grain Brain” and “Wheat Belly” and Should I Be Concerned?
“Grain brain” refers to a theory that several neurological disorders, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, are caused by overconsumption of carbs. The idea is that eating grains (even whole grains) leads to a glycemic spike—a quick rise and fall of your blood sugar—that produces damaging inflammation in the brain. Proponents of “wheat belly” claim that wheat is to blame for national rates of obesity and diabetes, and that eliminating it completely is the only way to lose significant weight or reverse type 2 diabetes; it’s based on the theory that the wheat protein gliadin acts as an appetite stimulant.

The underlying premises behind these ideas may have some validity, Powell says. “One of the possible symptoms in both celiac disease and NCGS is brain fog, so it may not be a huge leap to think gluten affects brain function,” Powell says. “And a high-carb diet could promote type 2 diabetes in people who are genetically predisposed to it.”

If you decide to go grain-free, your diet should further emphasize sturdy vegetables such as winter squash, sweet potatoes, root vegetables and legumes to provide concentrated carbs for energy.

More: Going Gluten-Free

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