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Gluten-free Diet Healthy or Unhealthy?

Once again there were some tweets on Twitter yesterday that got my knickers all in a knot. I love that phrase, “knickers in a knot” and am thrilled that I was able to use it somewhere! Okay, back to my thought process -sorry. It wasn’t what the tweeps (people who were tweeting) were saying, it was information that they had heard & were repeating that had me all riled up. Apparently Dr. Peter Green, Director of The Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, was on a show on XM radio yesterday afternoon. Alision, of Sure Foods Living, tweeted the following: “Dr. Peter Green on XM radio today said gluten-free diet is expensive, inconvenient and not a healthy diet. I disagree with the last part!!!“. I have lots of thoughts on this last part regarding the healthy diet. I completely agree with the expensive part and somewhat agree with inconvenient part.

The part I do not agree with at all is the gluten-free diet not being a healthy diet. I tweeted in response to Alison’s tweet “@CeliacFamily @surefoodsliving I think any diet is what you make it. There R plenty of healthy whole grain #gf foods.” See, Dr. Green was saying that the gluten-free diet, when compared to a diet of enriched wheat products, was not healthy. I truly believe that while the gluten-free diet can be unhealthy if you use products that are not made with gluten-free whole grains, it is all dependent upon what foods you choose. Same goes for the SAD (standard American diet) – white bread, fast food, cookies, cakes, doughnuts, etc. However, if you choose healthy gluten-free foods, the gluten-free diet can be very healthy.

What are healthy gluten-free foods? Well, for starters, most fruits and vegetables in their natural form are gluten-free. The same goes for unseasoned meats & fish, milk, beans (including soy), lentils, eggs, nuts, seeds (except wheat, rye & barley) and some yogurt. There are quite a number of gluten-free grains that are extremely healthy for you – here is a list of some of them:

  • quinoa
  • millet
  • sorghum
  • buckwheat
  • teff
  • amaranth
  • rice (brown is better for you than white)
  • corn

Take quinoa for example. Quinoa is a complete protein – this means that it has all 9 amino acids. It also high in fiber. Quinoa can be used in place of rice or you can find it in flake or flour form. I have also used millet & buckwheat in place of rice or quinoa in many dishes for a change.

The standard gluten-free flour mix contains rice flour, potato starch & tapioca flour. Using only this mix is not the healthiest option. Baking with a mixture of gluten-free flours can maximze the nutritional benefits of whatever you are baking. Amy, of Simply Sugar & Gluten-Free, has some great posts on gluten-free flours that will help explain all you ever wanted to know about gluten-free flours.

Does this mean that you have to avoid foods with rice, potato starch & tapioca flours in them? No. My whole point is this – any diet is what you make it. You can choose to eat the more healthy foods and then splurge on the “treats” in moderation. I think (and I am just speculating here) that possibly Dr. Green was referring to replacement products. When I am using the term “replacement products”, I am referring to those products that are pre-made, such as bread, cookies, rolls, etc. Some of the gluten-free replacement products on the market are comprised of the white gluten-free flour mixes made up of rice, potato starch & tapioca flours. I have run across more & more replacement products lately that are using some of the more nutritious gluten-free flours, such as bean flours or sorghum. There are even gluten-free pastas on the market now that are made of brown rice, corn & quinoa to add some nutritional value to them.

When I first started on the gluten-free diet 4 years ago, I did go straight to the replacement products that were not as healthy as I adjusted to the diet. There is definitely a learning curve. Now that I have had the time to reserach & learn, I try to utilize some of these healthier gluten-free ingredients. I also try to stick to foods that are naturally gluten-free, eliminating the need for replacement products where I can.

Anyone else care to weigh in on this? I would love to hear some other opinions on this.

15 comments to Gluten-free Diet Healthy or Unhealthy?

  • Maybe he was talking about all the vitamin B and iron that is added into wheat flours to become "fortified", which is where I think a lot of people end up getting those particular nutrients. My father in law is always telling my husband he needs to take vitamin B supplements because of not ingesting glutenicious fortified flours. GF flours are not fortified. I'm not a nutritionist, but I think if you eat enough whole foods and are conscious to find foods rich in those nutrients you can figure out how to compensate.

  • THANK YOU a million times for saying all of this. I get SO flustered with gluten free opinions/feedback and want-to-be "advice" givers who think they know about the diet (and some who are on it for no reason) and then take advantage by telling people mis-leading information. I agree, it's what you make of it. Corn tortillas are my main staple in my diet and they run $1-3 for a pack of 10 -100. That's not expensive and "normal" people buy the same thing without thinking twice. The only part of the diet that has hiked up my grocery bill is the organic foods I choose to buy because I researched and know the health benefits of choosing foods wisely.

    I understand your gripes with this all – and people who use words like "expensive" "organic" "inconvenient" need to try helping people by using better words that will convince people it's OK with words like "healthy" and "natural."

  • Wow. You'd think that the Director of The Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University would be better informed! The Gluten-Free diet can be extremely healthy if you do it right. I too made a lot of mistakes when I first started, I think because I craved the gluten-laden treats I was used to eating, like cookies, cake and donuts! After I started looking around for healthier options, I found that I loved a lot of foods I had never tried before! I ♥ quinoa, brown rice, ground flax seed, almond butter, black beans, hummus, etc. I find I eat a lot more fruits and veggies now. I do also, take B-Complex just for good measure, but I'm not sure it's really necessary. My B12 levels have always been good.

    Furthermore, as you pointed out, any "diet" can be unhealthy. Look at the number of overweight people in this country and look at what they are eating. Burgers, fries, coke. Loaded with bad fat, salt, sugar. No veggies, no fruits.

    This doctor obviously needs to talk to some healthy gluten-free people! Should we start a letter-writing campaign??? ;)


  • I agree with you completely on the nutrition part! If anything we could argue Gluten Free is much more healthy because we aren't (usually) drowning in pastries and over-processed, bleached flours that have to be "enriched" again just to have any nutritional value. We eat a much more varied and natural diet.

    I was just telling a friend of mine, rice and corn cost the same no matter if you have Celiac or not. And more people should vary their grains anyway – wild rice is like a staple with my relatives in Minnesota and they aren't Celiacs. So, I also disagree with the expensive part.

  • Jenny

    Found an article at the link below that explains why Dr. Green might have made that statement. Also, his bio at Columbia University shows that he is very dedicated to celiac awareness and helping people with the disease. Don't know the man but found it all to be very interesting. It is very hard to have to be on a special diet and then hear people make what seems like ignorant statements. Like the waitress that asked me if I was allergic to "toast." I personally think my diet is the healthiest it has ever been since going gluten-free because I just can't reach for those crackers, pretzels, cookies, etc. like I used to and am forced to make better choices.

  • Kim

    Thanks for all of your input & comments.

    I have always admired Dr. Green & don't really think any less of him now. I just don't like to hear statements that make generalizations like that.

    Yes, the gluten-free diet can be as inexpensive or expensive as you want it to be, too. You certainly could live off of fruits, veggies, meats, beans, etc without purchasing any of the high priced specialty foods. Missing vitamins could be supplemented with daily vitamins & supplements.

  • pdw

    My diet is composed of veggies, fruits, beans, whole gluten-free grains, nuts and seeds, etc. Very little baked goods. More healthy than other people I know.

    One small correction, by the way. All grains contain all of the essential amino acids. The idea of needing to complement proteins in plant foods was disproved decades ago.

  • Hey Kim,

    I've been very very clear about my opinion on this over on my blog. I agree with your assessment that Dr Green was referring to the GF "replacement" products, which very often do offer less from a nutritional standpoint than their gluten filled counterparts. The key, as I've expressed beofre, is to look "beyond the gluten free label" to items that are naturally gluten free.

    And to expand on pdw's comment, yes all essential amino acids may be present, but the ratios can be less than optimal in some vegetarian proteins. "This is why plant proteins are sometimes referred to as low quality proteins. Many plant proteins are low in one of the essential amino acids. For instance, grains tend to be short of lysine whilst pulses are short of methionine. This does not mean that vegetarians or vegans go short on essential amino acids. Combining plant proteins, such as a grain with a pulse, leads to a high quality protein which is just as good, and in some cases better, than protein from animal foods."

    From the Vegetarian Society website

  • Sorry I missed that Twitter conversation. I think you know how I feel on this subject, Kim. I don't agree at all that the gluten-free diet is more expensive. I don't pay any more than the next person BUT (and big but), I only buy a handful of gluten-free specialty foods. Seriously, they number less than a dozen. I focus on real food and some mainstream processed foods that are gluten free instead. My grocery store doesn't have a gf specialty section and I wouldn't use it if it did. Meat, seafood, veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, etc. … those are what we all can eat and benefit from. When I buy those, my bill does not differ from the person in line next to me.

    Dr. Green's comments tend to stir up hornet's nests … it was only about a year ago that he said that putting a child on a gluten-free diet who didn't have celiac as torture. Yikes. Now he's talking about gluten sensitivity on the Dr. Oz show though, so there's hope. One in the public eye must be really, really careful what they say.

    My total cholesterol dropped 40 points (or more, I hadn't had it checked in several years) with all the numbers moving to the perfect range after going gluten free. That comes from eating real and gluten-free food I believe. No, I am not completely healthy, but that's not from diet, that's from some ongoing related issues. Dr. Green has also stated that he doesn't believe adults who are diagnosed once adults ever completely heal.

    But, regarding fortified gluten flour, etc. These flours are fortified because all the nutrients have been stripped from them. If you're eating one gf processed food after another, you will be deficient, but not if you are eating real food, gf whole grains, etc.


  • Hey Kim,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I follow Dr. Green closely and generally agree with most of what he says but this one was a shocker.

    A local celiac (Zach from GlutenFreeRaleigh) recently had the best advice that I heard in a long time for me with regards to shopping gluten-free AND healthy: only shop the perimeter of the grocery store. You find all your essentials while avoiding the heavily processed food that often contains wheat (derivatives) and is not very healthy. The beauty about this trick is that it is really easy to do!

    At the end of the day I have to agree though that generalization is always dangerous, and each diet can be as healthy as you choose to make it.

  • Hajo,

    I also agree with the "shopping the perimeters of the store". Eliminates a lot of guess work & you can create your own masterpieces. :)


  • I can't speak for other gluten-free foods, but Buckwheat is absolutely a healthy staple in any diet. Buckwheat lowers cholesterol, is low in fat, high in fiber, high in protein, and has a low glycemic index, and of course, gluten-free! It is a "superfood" and ideal in any diet.

  • Kim

    Meredith – I love buckwheat! I actually use it in place of rice a lot. :)

  • my healthy diet routine include lots of dietary fibers, vegetables and fruits, i always cut down on beef and pork"*.

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