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Gluten Free Diet Not Necessarily Healthy

Updated on March 18, 2016

Gluten Free Diet

Gluten Free Diet
Gluten Free Diet | Source

Gluten Free is Popular

Gluten free foods are a booming industry for many grocery chains and food producers. Everyone seems to be on a gluten free diet these days. When I was diagnosed with a severe wheat allergy (about 12 years ago) there were not many pre-packaged foods available in the grocery store. There were a few products at the health food store, but even there, the number and types of available gluten free products was as very low.

These days, however, you can easily find many gluten-free products in your local grocery store. Being gluten free is easier these days, but is the gluten free diet really healthier than eating a normal diet?

The Gluten Free Fad

Why are so many people choosing to follow a gluten free diet? That’s a hard question to answer, aside from the fact that going gluten free seems to be the current health fad. Everyone from movie stars to your next door neighbor is going gluten free these days. Here’s a list of medical problems that are purported to be improved by going gluten free:

  • Lupus
  • Learning disabilities
  • MS
  • Muscle pain
  • Migraine
  • Menopause
  • Neuropathy
  • Narcolepsy
  • OCD
  • Psoriasis
  • Scleroderma
  • Ulcers
  • Urticaria
  • Yeast infections

  • ADHD
  • Acne
  • Arthritis
  • Behavior problems
  • Weight loss
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Gout
  • GERD
  • Increase fertility
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Interstitial cystitis
  • Joint pain
  • Kidney disease


I’m not a doctor or a dietician, but a gluten free diet may be able to help people who have these medical conditions. However, when you see a list like this, it begins to resemble the “snake oil cures” of the past; gluten and wheat seem to be the root cause of most of our ills. This isn't always the case.

People believe they are reacting to gluten, when they may be reacting to other ingredients that could be causing an allergy or other health problems. Our foods are also laced with many chemicals used as preservatives and stabilizers. These added substances can also wreak havoc with our health.

The only way to be certain that you need to be on a gluten free diet is to see your doctor and go through testing for allergies and celiac disease. No one should enter into the gluten free diet based on self-diagnosis. The gluten free diet is often seen as healthy, when it fact it can be just the opposite for most people.

Gluten Free Diet Friend or Fad?

Gluten Free Nutrition Guide

People Who Need a Gluten Free Diet

Health conditions that require a gluten free diet include gluten intolerance, gluten/wheat allergy and gluten sensitivity. These conditions are all different, but some of the symptoms are the same—making diagnosis challenging. Medical tests can help determine which health issue you have, especially if you have celiac disease or wheat/gluten allergy.

Gluten Intolerance

Gluten intolerance is a spectrum of health problems that includes celiac disease gluten sensitivity. This spectrum also includes gluten and wheat allergy, but that is rare, with about 0.1% of the US population. Many people are familiar with celiac disease.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune reaction to gluten; gluten causes the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine. The body sends out white blood cells that attack the lining of the small intestine. This causes damage to the intestines which can lead to malnutrition and other health conditions. About 1 in 133 people (or 1% of the population) suffer from celiac disease in the U.S.

Symptoms of celiac disease may include:

  • Abdominal bloating
  • Pain
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Pale stools
  • Weight loss
  • Dermatitis herpetiformis (severe skin rash)
  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Musculoskeletal problems (joint pain, bone pain, muscle cramps)
  • Growth problems (in children)
  • Seizures
  • Tingling sensation in the legs
  • Mouth sores

Wheat Allergy

Wheat allergy is sometimes confused with gluten sensitivity, but the two conditions are completely different. Wheat contains four different proteins that can cause a reaction: albumin, globulin, gliadin and gluten. Any or all of these proteins may induce an allergic reaction. These substances are known as allergens or allergy triggers when they cause an allergic reaction.

When a person has an allergy to wheat, their immune system mistakes the wheat proteins as harmful and begins to produce an antibody to fight the allergen. The immune system, once it has reacted to an allergen, “remembers” the allergen and will attack with each subsequent exposure to that substance. In this instance, your body will have an allergic to wheat each time you eat it.

Wheat allergy is more common in children than in adults, and it typically develops in young babies and toddlers. Most children outgrow wheat allergy.

Symptoms of wheat allergy include:

  • Swelling, itching of the mouth or throat
  • Hives
  • Itchy rash/swelling of the skin
  • Nasal congestion
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Difficulty breathing (asthma)
  • Cramps, nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Anaphylaxis

Gluten Sensitivity

Gluten sensitivity (also called non-celiac gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance) is another form of gluten intolerance, though many doctors don’t believe it exists.

Symptoms of gluten sensitivity may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Headaches
  • Brain fog

Gluten Free Bread

Gluten Free Bread
Gluten Free Bread | Source

Grains that Contain Gluten

Here's a list of grains that contain gluten:

Barley

Bulgur

Couscous

Durum

Faro

Kumut

Malt

Oats

Rye

Semolina

Spelt/dinkel

Triticale

Wheat

Foods that Contain Gluten

Gluten is found in thickeners and stabilizers in soups, spreads and sauces, flavorings in cereals, noodles, spices, teas, some forms of coffee, fillers in processed meats, imitation meats and vegetarian substitutes.

Reading labels is made challenging due to a lack of regulations on naming ingredients. For instance, some ingredients may be listed with their Latin name (triticum vulgare is wheat). People may also be unfamiliar with some ingredients that do contain gluten, such as bulgur, couscous, farina, malt and seitan.

The following products typically contain gluten:

  • Bread
  • Cake
  • Muffins
  • Cookies
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Pasta
  • Couscous
  • Farina
  • Semolina
  • Beer
  • Processed potatoes (including hash browns and frozen french fries)
  • Oats (some say these are gluten free, while others say not. The problem here is that oats may be farmed next to wheat and then processed in factories that also deal with wheat products).

Not so obvious food products that contain gluten:

  • Soy sauce
  • Condiments (including ketchup and mustard)
  • Cold cuts and other processed meats (sausages and hotdogs)
  • Licorice
  • Jelly beans
  • Hard candies
  • Baking powder

That’s a long list of foods found in most people’s diets these days. This list is only the tip of the iceberg of foods that contain wheat and gluten. Hidden gluten is also a danger. You can find gluten/wheat in many cosmetics, personal care items, and in such places as the glue on the backs of stamps and envelopes.

Gluten Free Vegetables

Gluten Free Diet
Gluten Free Diet | Source

Problems with a Gluten Free Diet

A gluten and wheat free diet is necessary for those who have a medical reason to avoid these ingredients. However, even if you need to be on a gluten free diet, you need to be aware of the health issues involved on this diet:

  • Lack of nutrients: gluten free diets are low in B vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and fiber, low in phosphorus, vitamin D, and other nutrients.
  • Gluten free diet is expensive: gluten free foods are also about 20 to 30 percent more expensive than wheat-containing versions.
  • High in fats: many pre-packaged gluten free products contain high levels of fat in order to improve the food’s taste and texture.
  • Empty calories: gluten free foods are often made with refined, unenriched grains and starches that only offer empty calories and not much nutrition.
  • Hidden glutens: can be found in imitation crab meat, chocolate, deli meats, soy sauce, vitamins, medications and some toiletries (such as toothpaste, cosmetics, and even hair products).
  • Weight Gain: the gluten free diet may promote weight gain due to products containing high-glycemic refined ingredients such as white rice flour, potato starch, etc.—these can affect your blood sugar and trigger cravings.

It’s necessary to be careful and watch out for gluten free products that are purely junk food. These are as unhealthy as their gluten-containing versions. Taste and texture may lead some manufacturers to add extra sugar and fat to make the gluten free product more like its gluten-containing cousin.

Lack of essential nutrients can lead to diseases such as heart attacks, vascular disease and strokes. You could face a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and cancer due to not getting the right nutrition from your food.

As you can see, a gluten free diet is not actually healthy due to the lack of nutrients, increased fats and empty calories, as well as being expensive.

Gluten Free Naturally

Gluten Free Diet
Gluten Free Diet | Source

Gluten Free Grains

Here's a list of grains that are naturally gluten free:

Amaranth

Arrowroot

Buckwheat

Chia

Corn/maize

Chestnut

Chickpea

Coconut

Hemp

Lentil (this is a legume)

Lupin

Millet

Pea

Potato

Soya

Sesame

Tapioca

Urid

Polenta

Psyllium husks

Sago

Sorghum

Keep in mind that if you have allergies, you may also be allergic to one or more of these grains.


Make Your Gluten Free Diet Healthier

There are some ways you can make your gluten free diet healthier by following these tips:

1). Stick to fresh, whole foods in order to avoid the weight gain some people experience on a gluten free diet.

2). Choose low-fat, low cholesterol gluten free products.

3). Choose grains such as buckwheat (not related to wheat), quinoa, millet—these offer more nutrients than flour made from rice and other gluten free grains/seeds.

4). Take a multivitamin to replace nutrients lost on the gluten free diet.

5). Get more fiber by eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

6). Choose healthy snacks such as popcorn or fruit and stay away from fried chips, etc.

7). Read labels to avoid hidden gluten. Read the labels on all foods, even on products that you’ve used. Recipes often change, with no notice, even on products that might have been gluten free in the past.

8). Eat plenty of fresh, whole foods: lean meat, poultry, fish, vegetables and fruits.

9). Cook from scratch at home: as with any diet, cooking from scratch saves a lot of money. This is also true on a gluten free diet.

How to Eat Healthy and Balanced While Gluten Free

Sum It Up

A gluten free diet, by itself, is not necessarily a healthy diet. However, by following the tips above, you can make your gluten free diet more nutritious, varied and tasty. No one said it would be easy, but with some work and effort you can successfully manage your gluten free life-style.

Gluten Free Diet Poll

Why have you gone gluten free?

See results

Additional Gluten Free Information

Here are some of my other hubs dealing with the gluten free lifestyle:

Grain Mills and Milling Gluten Free Flour: milling your own gluten free flour can increase the nutrition of your home-made foods, while also saving money on your grocery bill!

My Review of Bette Hagman's The Gluten Free Gourmet: this is one of the best cookbooks for newbies to the gluten free lifestyle. Hagman explains all the ins and outs of celiac and a gluten free diet, while providing easy and nutritious recipes.

Gluten Free Wild Blueberry Coffee Cake: this is one of my favorite gluten free cake recipes! The recipe's easy and versatile!

Gluten Free Super Bowl Party Recipes: here you'll find some gluten free recipes that are great for not only for Super Bowl parties, but for any gathering!

You can also check out my blog, Thrifty and Gluten Free for more information about gluten free living, recipes and more.

© 2014 Sherry Vacik

Share your views on the gluten free lifestyle!

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      Peter A Edwards 2 years ago

      A very well written article that is full of useful information and advice. When you really need to follow a Gluten Free Diet, it is not just a fad but a way of life.

      It is one where it takes getting used to, and can be full of the wrong types of carbs and fats. Always seek advice from a Medical Professional, and never go it alone.

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