There seems to be a lot of “buyer beware” messaging whenever the gluten-free diet is covered in the mainstream media. For example, the November ABC Nightline segment on “The Dangers of the Gluten-Free Diet”, which I recently viewed from my DVR archives. And I’ve seen multiple other examples in the past couple of years since the diet has been receiving buzz around Hollywood for its role in weight loss, increased energy and better skin and for its controversial role in treating disorders, such as Autism. It’s always the same old [school] story — it has no benefit to you unless you have true celiac disease and a diet without gluten will lead to nutrient deficiencies.
I admit that it is possible to be deficient in certain nutrients if you’re following a gluten-free, but otherwise unbalanced, diet. But let’s keep it real — Americans as a whole are overfed and undernourished. The standard American, gluten-heavy diet is by no means nutritionally superior. It’s just getting a little back-up from the government.
A Bit of Enrichment
It breaks down like this: The FDA requires that manufacturers of wheat flour add Riboflavin, Thiamin, Niacin, Folic Acid (all B Vitamins), Iron and sometimes Calcium to the product because they were completely stripped during the refining process. This process includes removing the bran and germ from the wheat kernel, so it’s no longer a “whole grain”. It is then bleached, to provide a better appearance to the consumer. Sounds nutritious, right? Ironically, this process is what the term “enriched” refers to. There are no such regulations for gluten-free grains, which is why gluten-free flours made from refined grains (e.g. white rice flour, corn/potato flours and starches), can be even more nutrient deficient than wheat flour.
But why don’t we try to gain a bit of perspective here. Are we only to receive nutrients from bread products? No. Does a gluten-free diet mandate avoiding fruits and vegetables and other nutrient dense ingredients? Absolutely not. Are we not suppose to follow the same recommendations to “eat whole grains” when we’re choosing a gluten-free diet? No – and this where I see the biggest source of misconception. As I discussed in my last post, whole grain gluten-free products can be hard to find, but there are some good ones out there that are made with whole and/or ancient grain products such as brown rice, quinoa or millet. Clean Cravings products, for example, have more than 20 grams of whole grains per serving.
The Biggest Offenders
B-Vitamins (Thiamine, Riboflavin, Niacin, Folate/Folic Acid)
Playing a critical role in cognitive function, energy, metabolism and skin health, B vitamins can be found in wide variety of fruits, vegetables and nuts. Below is a list of the major players.
All B Vitamins: avocados, legumes (e.g. beans, lentils), gluten-free whole grains (e.g. brown rice), nutritional yeast (look for a brand with B12 if consuming a vegan diet), asparagus, broccoli, spinach, bananas, potatoes, dried apricots/dates/figs, and nuts (especially pine nuts, coconuts, walnuts, almonds and cashews).
Folic Acid: I’m isolating Folic Acid because of its critical role in the prevention of birth defects. The best clean sources here are: lentils, chickpeas/garbanzo beans (think hummus with some toasted Just Crust Minis), black beans, green leafy vegetables (especially spinach, asparagus and broccoli), avocado, sunflower seeds and oranges. You need 400 micrograms per day, which you could get in 1 cup of cooked spinach, 2 Tablespoons of sunflower seeds and 1 cup of OJ. And if you take a decent multivitamin (preferably made with whole foods), that will give you the 400 micrograms by itself.
Iron is a critical mineral because of its role in the transport of oxygen to tissues relating to energy and immune function. Good sources include: cooked spinach, lentils, broccoli, quinoa, collard greens, black, pinto & kidney beans, potato, beets, and many nuts and seeds.
Note that I’ve listed vegan sources of Iron. While it’s commonly thought that vegetarian diets are low in iron, research has shown that iron deficiency is not an issue for this population. The reasons are likely two-fold: 1) when you look at the amount of iron by weight, vegetarian foods are a denser source of iron. For example, you would have to eat more than 1700 calories of sirloin steak to get the same amount of iron as found in 100 calories of spinach. 2) Because a vegetarian diet is high in Vitamin C, the absorption of iron is enhanced.
Calcium is a structural component of the bones and teeth and also plays a role in hormonal secretion regulation, muscle contraction, blood clotting and activation of some enzyme systems. There’s likely more [unfounded] concern of deficiency in a dairy/casein-free diet than there is for strictly a gluten-free diet, but since both are important elements in clean eating, I’m giving it some air time.
Despite the on-going aggressive milk campaigning, it is not that difficult to get the calcium and other nutrients needed from non-dairy sources. For example, almond milk has almost just as much calcium as cow’s milk (30% DV vs. 35%) and steamed or dark leafy greens have as much calcium per serving as milk. Moreover, the calcium in kale is even better absorbed than the calcium from cow’s milk.
Other good non-diary sources include: almonds (more than milk), hazelnuts, walnuts, sesame, sunflower seeds and nutritional yeast.
There’s no doubt fiber is an integral part of a healthy diet. It lowers cholesterol, increases satiety, regulates blood sugar, encourages proper bowel function and balances intestinal pH. But, I find the idea that a gluten-free diet has to equal a low fiber diet, particularly unconvincing. As I referred to in my earlier tirade, eating gluten-free puts no restrictions on consuming fruits and vegetables or whole grains, which are the best sources of fiber available. You’d be hard pressed to find any items in these categories without any fiber, but the best bang for your buck is going to be from: berries, green leafy veggies, sweet potatoes/yams (with skins), quinoa, brown rice, lentils, beans, nuts and seeds.
Keeping it Real
Gluten-free diets, like any other diet, can be extremely healthy or they can be extremely unhealthy. It all comes down to what you choose to eat – choosing whole, real foods are always going to pay dividends over refined, processed items.
And the sad truth is, it’s unlikely even the healthiest of diets are receiving the proper nutrients needed without supplementation, due to factory farming and soil erosion compromising the nutrient values of our foods. So I recommend that everyone take a high quality, multi-vitamin and mineral supplement made from whole foods just to cover your bases.