Are gluten-free diets healthy?

When people find out I eat gluten-free, the response is often something like this:  “oh, I’ve heard of that!  I was thinking of trying it out.  Is gluten-free healthy?”

Before I answer, I want to talk about my summer a little bit.  I can’t even begin to remember everything I’ve done the last few months.  We had family visiting from Florida, family visiting from England, and family visiting from Windsor;  I went to cottages; I went to Vegas; I moved out of my apartment so my floors could be replaced post-flooding from our upstairs neighbours; I decided to do a kitchen renovation at the same time.

Here’s a little preview of the kitchen I’ve had to work with for the last few weeks:

2013-09-10 12.31.48

Before we demolished the kitchen, my boyfriend’s family visited for a week, and we ate out almost every meal.  So I’d say I’ve been eating like crap for about 33 days now.  Full disclosure:   I’ve polished off a Dairy Milk bar approximately every 3-4 days, and last week I bought a 2lb bag of Rockets for no reason besides they were by the checkout at Shoppers Drug Mart and I wanted to shovel them in my face.  I’ve eaten at restaurants (fast food and otherwise) for basically every meal besides breakfast since our kitchen was demolished.  I devoured a whole tub of frozen Greek yogurt by myself.  I’ve been eating nachos and pizza and burrito bowls and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Froyo.

I feel gross.  And I’ve probably gained about 8lbs (I haven’t checked; my scale is still in a box somewhere).

But it has all been gluten-free!  Every bite.  Not an ounce of gluten.

I went to the Gluten Free Expo (or as everyone else calls it, “the cardboard convention”) in Toronto a few weeks ago, and I tried all the samples.  Breads, cookies, cakes, bars, pasta, you name it.  Lots of them were delicious!  But by the end of the day, I felt awful.   I went home wondering, what’s the point?

My haul.

My haul.

Back to the question:  are gluten-free diets healthier than normal diets?

No.

Obviously, people who have celiac disease must not eat gluten.  I also believe strongly in non-celiac gluten intolerance, even if mainstream medicine does not (yet).  Not eating gluten has made enough positive changes in my health for me to never eat it again.  I believe it can play a role in autoimmune disease (like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) and endocrine disorders (like PCOS), mental health issues (like depression), and neurological issues, just to name a few.

I also get really annoyed when I see articles like “The dangers of going gluten-free“, which reiterates the idea that people with celiac disease are the ONLY ones who should avoid gluten, and ONLY after they receive a confirmed diagnosis from a doctor.  Which could mean eating a ton of the thing that is literally destroying your intestinal lining, for months, and possibly getting a false negative anyway.  Why some doctors are so opposed to elimination diets and why some people are so desperate to eat gluten they won’t stop until a doctor says “your intestinal lining is finally destroyed enough for your biopsy to be positive!”, I’ll never understand.  Guess what?  If you have celiac disease, and you stop eating gluten, you will feel better!  There’s your diagnosis.

Articles like that always fail to actually explain the dangers of going gluten-free.  It makes a cool scary-sounding headline, but the “dangers” always end up being things like “it’s expensive!” and “gluten-free products might not be fortified with as many nutrients as gluten-filled products!”  As for the former, yes, if you buy pre-packaged stuff, it’s more expensive to eat gluten free, but it’s getting cheaper.  Eating whole foods isn’t really more expensive.  The latter is correct too, but it’s basically saying that it’s dangerous to eat gluten-free bread because it’s not enriched with as many nutrients as Wonderbread.  Here’s a crazy thought: maybe people shouldn’t be getting their nutrients from enriched wheat bread either?

There is nothing “dangerous” about eating gluten-free.  There are no nutrients found in gluten-containing foods (wheat and other grains) that cannot be attained from other foods.  In fact, I think anyone with a persistent medical issue (which includes most people in North America) should try not eating gluten to see if it helps or not.  However, a diet isn’t automatically healthy because it’s gluten-free.  You know what’s gluten-free?  Candy.  Chocolate.  Ice cream.  Sugar.  Corn chips.  Rice.  Eating a bag of gluten-free cookies is not healthier than eating a bag of Oreos simply because the Oreos contain gluten.  Shoveling roll after roll of Rockets into my mouth is not healthy because Rockets don’t contain gluten.

So, if you don’t think you have celiac disease, and you’re going to eat the exact same crap you are already eating, you may as well keep eating it with gluten.  If you really want to make a change in your health, try real food.  (Or the plant-based kind, if that’s your thing.)

Me?  I can’t wait to have a kitchen again so I can get back on the low-carb, paleo bandwagon.

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