Over the past decade, awareness of celiac disease has grown exponentially in the healthcare community as more people have been diagnosed with the disease or with gluten sensitivity. If you’ve decided to give up gluten but continue to eat gluten-free processed starches, you could be doing more harm to your health than you think. An overabundance of gluten-free packaged foods has made the switch easy for consumers without taking into account that these highly processed foods are not the panacea to good health.
Gluten is a protein that naturally occurs in a number of grains such as wheat, barley, oats and rye. The intake of gluten is dangerous for people diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that prevents people from properly digesting gluten by attacking the inner linings of the intestine. This leads to irritability and pain in the abdomen and can even prevent the gut from properly absorbing nutrients. For those who have celiac disease or gluten-sensitivity, you should avoid gluten…absolutely…but avoid gluten in a natural way; by choosing foods that are naturally gluten-free like vegetables and whole grains in its real form like rice (not rice flour).
Coverage of the gluten-free movement in the media has convinced many to consider the potential benefits of a gluten-restricted diet but yet marketing is targeting people to purchase processed products that say they are “gluten-free” but then are filled with other fillers and additives. These pre-packaged foods are being sold as “healthier” alternatives to snack foods, breads and pastas. In reality, these foods are often nutritionally deficient. Gluten-free breads, cereals, pastas and bars are highly processed foods and contain a number of fillers and additives to make them taste like their “real” counterparts.
Many gluten-free foods that are man-made are filled with rice flour or starches like tapioca and potato, making them low in protein and fiber. These foods break down easily and are converted to sugar. Even breads labeled gluten-free and whole grain contain just fractions of the fiber and protein content that whole-wheat bread provides.
If you are choosing to go gluten-free, pick whole foods that are minimally processed since they will give you the nutrients and vitamins that gluten-free packaged foods will not. I always tell my patients in my clinic of integrative medicine in San Jose, CA that it is possible to avoid gluten and still maintain a balanced diet if you remember a few rules the next time you’re at the grocery store:
Choose Whole Grains: Naturally gluten-free grains like quinoa, wild rice, teff and amaranth are just a few of the options available that are unprocessed and nutritionally rich. Try to avoid man-made foods like pastas and breads, by sticking to “real foods” in its whole form such as the whole grains, you’ll naturally stay away from processed ingredients that can sometimes taint crackers, pastas and breads.
The Fresher, The Better: Fresh fruits and vegetables are filling and provide plenty of vitamins and nutrients naturally. Legumes and beans are a great source of protein, while starches and carbs should be derived from vegetables like yams and potatoes. Whip up a fruit and veggie smoothie for yourself and add chia seeds for protein and an extra crunch.
Protein = Power: When choosing meats, pick lean proteins like turkey breast, chicken or fish. Nuts also provide protein and fat, making them a great alternative to gluten-free crackers or chips. Seeds are another protein-filled snack that can be prepared in minutes and taken on the go.