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Health Matters

by Stephanie d'Orsay / Columnist • October 23, 2013

These days, you can’t enter a grocery store without seeing the words “gluten-free” plastered all over various products. Gluten-free breads, crackers, cereals, and other products have taken over entire sections of grocery store shelves, and many restaurants now have sections of their menu dedicated to the trend. In recent years — with the help of the Paleo diet — gluten has become the enemy of the nutrition world and in popular culture. While those with Celiac disease and gluten sensitivities have a medical reason to avoid it, many individuals are now avoiding gluten simply to lose weight.

Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Most commonly associated with wheat, it is found in most baked goods, such as breads and crackers.

Recently, gluten-free diets have become trendy, with many people eliminating the protein with hopes of weight loss or fat loss, regardless of having a medical condition.

The important thing to remember is that gluten is not inherently bad for everyone, and that gluten-free certainly does not mean healthy. When someone reduces the amount of breads and other processed foods they consume, weight loss may occur due to a decrease in sugars and starches. It is important to note, however, the types of foods that are replacing the more gluten-heavy choices. If “regular” bread is replaced by gluten free bread, consumers need to be aware that most “gluten-free” baked goods and processed foods actually have a higher amount of calories, sugar, and fat than their gluten-filled counterparts.

Taking the gluten out of a cookie does not make it a health food. For example, Trader Joe’s gluten-free Crispy Crunchy Chocolate Chip Cookies have 150 calories per cookie, with nine grams of fat and 19 grams of carbohydrates each. On the other hand, “regular” chocolate chip cookies from the same brand have 140 calories, seven grams of fat, and 17 grams of carbohydrates for two cookies. Clearly, the gluten-free option is not the best one in that scenario, unless there is a medical reason for it.

Although going gluten-free is a personal choice, and a healthy diet can be followed with or without this nutrient, avoiding it is not a magical cure-all.  Whether your goal is weight loss or improving your general health, try focusing your attention on processed foods versus non-processed foods, instead of gluten versus gluten-free. Including more whole, natural foods such as vegetables, eggs, and lean meats in your daily life will do far more for your health than a gluten-free label on a package.  Remember, deciding to be gluten-free does not make you healthier — it’s what you choose to eat instead of gluten products that can make or break your diet.

The truth is, just like any other diet or food trend, what works for some might not work for others. Avoiding gluten can make some people feel wonderful, while others may notice no difference. 

The most important thing is finding out what works best for you, whether that includes gluten products or not. Instead of focusing on what foods you need to avoid, try to pay more attention to the things you do eat.  Include as many whole, minimally-processed foods as possible in your daily life, and you’ll be well on your way to better overall health.  


For more tips, check out d'Orsay's blog I Train Therefore I Eat.