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Updated: Mar 27, 2023

It probably comes as no surprise that a gluten-free diet has become one of the most popular food trends of this decade. Originally deemed inflammatory to the small intestine of celiac patients, gluten intolerance has since been correlated to a number of other medical conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, dermatitis, autoimmune disorders, and so on. Grocery stores now dedicate a whole section to gluten-free products and foods, creating many alternatives that mimic the wheat-based staples of the North American diet. And while these products are helpful for individuals with allergies or intolerances to gluten, a considerable number without these diseases still adopt a gluten-free lifestyle in hopes of reaping some health benefits. ​But there's one major mistake many people are making.

Gluten is a grain protein found in wheat, spelt, barley, and rye. Its also added as a filler to many dressings and sauces, such as soya sauce. Individuals with intolerances to gluten may experience a number of symptoms, including but not limited to gas, bloating, diarrhea/constipation, joint pain and/or swelling, fatigue, brain fog, mood issues such as anxiety or depression, headaches, mouth ulcers, and dermatitis herpetiformis (unique to celiac disease). And while gluten intolerances exist, the list of associated symptoms is very broad and non-specific, meaning the same symptoms can also be seen in a number of other medical conditions such as food intolerances, anemias, dysbiosis, hypochlorhydria, and so on. It's always best to talk to your Naturopath or Family Doctor before deciding to sustain a gluten-free diet. The most important fact I want to highlight here is this... A product labelled "gluten-free" does NOT mean it's a healthier alternative. Now let me be clear... following a gluten-free lifestyle lays some important groundwork for a less refined, more whole foods, and overall healthier diet. However, the mistake is made when, instead of limiting refined foods like bread, crackers, and pasta altogether, people reach for their gluten-free alternatives. To shed evidence on the situation, new and interesting research coming out of Harvard University found after reviewing 30 years worth of medical data that individuals limiting or completely avoiding gluten had a 13% increased risk of type 2 diabetes [1]. Now does that mean gluten prevents diabetes? Unlikely. But what it does suggest is that gluten-free foods often contain less fibre and other macronutrients helpful in preventing metabolic disorders. Secondly, the most common ingredients found in gluten-free alternative products are rice and corn. Most of the corn in these kinds of pasta is genetically modified, and because corn flour doesn't stay together as well as wheat, a number of chemical binding agents get added to the mix to create a wheat-like texture. A cup of brown rice pasta has a glycemic index (GI) of 92 and a glycemic load (GL) of 52 !!! (I call it diabetes in a box), vs a cup of whole wheat pasta with a GI of 37 and a GL of 17 [2]. Also, if you didn't know, rice is loaded with arsenic, with brown rice being the highest source of it. Without going into too much detail on this topic, I'll direct you to the Environmental Working Group's website, which has a great resource here highlighting the problems with arsenic, how it's getting into our rice and ways to limit/avoid it [3]. So yes, this Naturopath enjoys the occasional slice of toasted whole grain bread with brunch and the occasional hoppy brewed beverage on a summer patio. I'm fortunate to not experience a gluten intolerance, which means I don't limit it completely, but I also don't consume it often. My diet tends to limit refined carbohydrates in general, gluten and gluten-free all the same. Remember, the foods that were always gluten-free (ie popcorn) are now re-branding with gluten-free labels in hopes of catching a few more consumers who are getting in on the action. We must act as educated consumers, or else it becomes very easy to fall victim to the next biggest health trend and miss the mark completely. The moral of the story is if you're going gluten-free, part ways with refined carbohydrates instead of reaching for the chemically altered, less nutritious gluten-free substitutes. And for goodness' sake, eat your veggies.

[1] Low gluten diets may be associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. American Heart Association Meeting Report Presentation 11. March 09, 2017. ​ [2] The University of Sydney Glycemic Index Database. [3] Arsenic is in rice - should you worry? Environmental Working Group Food Database.


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