Gluten-Free: The Low-Carb of This Decade?

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Gluten-Free Marketplace Has Changed With Growing Perception It's Somehow Healthier

Her sister-in-law showed her the ropes of shopping gluten-free. As the mother of two young sons who loves to cook from scratch, she found that some favorites, like risotto, were made with rice, which she can eat without reservation.

She doesn't want to interfere with the children's diet, so, for example, at dinner last Wednesday night, "I served bread for my boys and my husband and I just did without and that's fine."

She said her 5-year-old son is learning something from her new eating habits.

"My 5-year-old will say, 'Is an apple gluten-free?'" she said. "I'll say 'yes, that's gluten-free.' Then he'll turn around and offer me a pancake. He's still getting it."

Even though gluten-free diets initially were an accommodation to celiac disease and wheat allergies, the marketplace has changed.

Today, 90 percent of people whose eschew gluten do so "just as a food fad, or as a weight reduction thing," said Dr. Peter H.R. Green, director of Columbia University's Celiac Disease Center in New York. "Only 10 percent are doing it because they think it's helping their condition."

Many consumers feel that gluten-free foods are somehow better for them. Green said gluten-free diets can take off pounds if someone is cutting down on carbohydrate-rich pasta and bread, but they're no caloric bargain if they substitute gluten-free versions, typically containing more fat, sugar and a bigger caloric punch.

Avoiding gluten without a medical reason can put good health at risk in several ways.

Gluten-free flours and baked goods "aren't fortified with iron or B vitamins as wheat flour is; some people may become anemic because of lack of iron in their diet," Green said.

Flours, breads and other baked goods made from rice, potato and corn instead of flour often lack the fiber of their wheaten counterparts. As a result, they're higher on the glycemic index, more quickly raising glucose (blood sugar) levels in the blood and causing the pancreas to release more insulin.

That extra glycemic load can be a problem not just for someone prone to obesity or diabetes, but also to cancer patients trying to stick eat better to prevent secondary illnesses, said Dr. Mary Hardy, medical director of the Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology.

In seeking to follow "the healthiest, cleanest diet," some misguided patients may buy into the notion that after rejecting higher-fat foods such as red meat and dairy, they've "got to take gluten out, too." Hardy said she becomes concerned when a patient "mindlessly" assumes gluten-free must be better. To show how over-the-top gluten-free claims can be, she described recently attending a natural products expo where she picked up "a bottle of plain water that was labeled as gluten-free!"

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