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Nutrition Fact or Fiction: Gluten and Grains

By Jaqueline Perez, MS, RDN

How many times have you looked at packaged food and read “Gluten-free” or “Grain-free” and thought, “Hmm, does that mean it’s healthy?” The fact of the matter is gluten and grains have been a topic of discussion in the health and nutrition world. There are several popular diet trends and fad diets that avoid gluten or grains, or BOTH! Many of these diets claim results of weight loss, muscle gain, increased energy, reduced risk of certain diseases and more. I’m going to put my dietitian hat on and refer to the evidence to distinguish FACT or FICTION when it comes to gluten and grains.

1. “Gluten is bad

First off, gluten is a protein. It is naturally found in wheat, rye, and barley. You will find gluten regularly in products like bread, packaged snacks, tortillas, pancakes, cereals, etc. In recent years, gluten has gotten a bad reputation due to diet culture and fad diets. The truth is, gluten is NOT bad. Evidence-based research shows there is a very small percentage of the general population that actually needs to avoid gluten like people with Celiac’s disease, gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergies along with a few other conditions. People with these conditions should definitely eliminate or avoid gluten in their diet to prevent adverse reactions or serious illness. However, most people can tolerate gluten without issue. In fact, gluten is found in many nutrient dense foods like whole wheat pastas and breads that contain fiber and vitamins.

Final verdict...FICTION.

2. “Gluten-free is always healthier”

If you walk down a snack aisle in the grocery store and spot “Gluten-free”, would you buy that product instead of a gluten-containing product? This is a toss up. Foods that are naturally gluten-free can be extremely healthy and nutrient dense. These include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. However, when it comes to packaged foods, you have to take a second look. Packaged foods like potato chips, caramel corn, granola bars can all be labeled as “Gluten-free” and seem like the right pick. BUT not ALWAYS. When comparing a snack of a gluten-free potato chip bag to a slice of whole wheat bread with a smear of peanut butter, there is no contest. The latter is going to be more nutrient dense full of fiber, healthy fats, iron and B-vitamins. Keep that in mind next time you moze down the snack aisle.

Final verdict...FICTION.

3. “Eliminating grains will make you lose weight

Okay, so there is some truth to this one, but maybe not in the way that you may think. Grains include foods like rice, bread, pastas, barley, dried cornmeal, popcorn, oats, etc. Several popular diets that are “Grain-free” include paleo, Whole30, raw foods, and Keto (to some extent). There is evidence to show some rapid weight loss when eliminating grains from your diet if it has already been a staple. However, the weight loss is mostly related to water weight in the body as opposed to actual fat loss. To put it simply, grains contain carbohydrates, carbohydrates love water. More carbohydrates equals more water and more body weight. Less carbohydrates equals less water and less body weight.

The longevity of weight loss from eliminating grains is often cut short once grains are added back into one’s diet. Before cutting out some of the most nutrient-dense foods like oats, just remember that the weight loss is likely only temporary. Not to mention, you may also miss out on some of your favorite dishes!

Final verdict...TOSS UP.

4. “Whole grains taste like cardboard”

How many times have you heard your parents or grandparents say this? I know I have. While taste is a personal preference, often this type of reaction to whole grains results from a prior pattern of eating highly salted or highly seasoned foods. When a family decides to make a switch from white bread to wheat bread or you opt for whole wheat pasta instead of white pasta, there is a slight difference in taste.

This is where creativity comes in! You can jazz up whole grains like brown rice or barley by cooking it in low sodium chicken or vegetable broth instead of water to bump up the flavor. You can add a TON of flavor to whole wheat toast with a little almond butter and a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds. When making whole wheat pasta, be sure to season the cooking water with salt to add extra flavor and pair it with a hearty, flavorful pasta sauce. Don’t even get me started on overnight oats, those can be both sweet and savory. Check out this link for some good recipes,

You can definitely have your cake and eat it too in this instance.

Final verdict...FICTION.

Gluten and grains can be a very nutritious and healthy part of your diet. Don't count them out. If you're having some stomach discomfort or gastrointestinal issues, be sure to work with your doctor or a registered dietitian to get to the bottom of it before chucking these two types of foods out of your diet.

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