Gluten is a protein naturally found in wheat, barley and rye that attacks the lining of the small intestine in people who have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergy. For these people a gluten free diet is key to controlling the condition and preventing serious complications. The new FDA regulations sets the gluten limit at less than 20 ppm (parts per million). This is the lowest level that can be detected in foods by valid scientific tools. The regulations also allow foods that are naturally gluten-free -- eggs, mineral water, fruits and vegetables -- to now declare they are gluten-free on their labels. Consumers may misinterpret this expansion of gluten- free foods as evidence that gluten- free equals healthy eating.
Celebrity endorsements, low gluten weight loss plans, and even gluten- free diets for children with autism spectrum disorder have driven the popularity of this eating plan. Yet, there is no scientific evidence that not eating gluten can help with weight loss or control autism. When people change their diet they often inadvertently improve it which makes actual cause and effect hard to define.
Many gluten-free foods have just as many and sometimes more calories than traditional choices. Many are low in whole grains and fiber and may be higher in fat. Despite its growing popularity gluten-free diets might actually be the wrong choice for those who do not have gluten-related disorders.
Some recent research has shown that a gluten-free diet changes your gut bacteria reducing beneficial microbes. Natural resistant starches found in wheat promote healthy gut bacteria and protect you against some cancers, inflammation, and heart disease. Wheat fiber also reduces blood sugar and triglycerides and helps control weight. When you stop eating wheat and foods containing wheat you lose this protection. A primary way that whole grain foods, like whole wheat, offer health benefits is by interacting with your beneficial gut bacterial.
Wheat gluten, which is a problem for those that are sensitive to the protein, may actually offer health benefits for those without sensitivity. In a research study where subjects were fed a diet with 11% of the carb from wheat gluten there was a reduction in triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. Gluten may also aid in blood pressure control and offer natural protection against cancer. When test subjects were fed more gluten their natural killer cell activity increased which protects against viral infections and tumor development.
Another concern, when an otherwise healthy person switches to a gluten-free diet, is inadequate nutrient intake. Wheat flour is fortified with thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid (essential B vitamins) as well as iron. Deficiencies in folic acid are common in women of child bearing age and can lead to miscarriage and birth defects. Since folic acid fortification of wheat became mandatory in 1998 the incidence of neural tube defect, a serious birth defect, has declined by 30%. Adequate folic acid may also protect against stroke, dementia and depression. Because Americans eat too few fruits and vegetables, the prime source of folic acid, fortification of bread, cereal and pasta made from wheat, closes the gap for this important vitamin.
There is no question that those with celiac disease and those with gluten sensitivity need to avoid wheat. There is also some evidence that gluten might play a role in psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 1 diabetes. But, there is no evidence that a gluten-free diet has any health benefits for the general public and may, in fact, have a negative impact on health.
© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
The Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd ed., 2013
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The Complete Food Counter, 4th ed., 2012
The Diabetes Counter, 4th Ed., 2011
The Protein Counter, 3rd Ed., 2011
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The Fat Counter, 7th ed., 2009
The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008
The Cholesterol Counter, 7th Ed., 2008
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