The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Is it Healthier to Eat Gluten-Free?

Is it Healthier to Eat Gluten-Free?

Dietitian Dialogues

June 27, 2010

The gluten-free diet is currently the only treatment for celiac disease, a disorder that affects approximately one in 133 people in the United States. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the small intestine is damaged by the protein, called gluten, in wheat, rye and barley. Symptoms vary and may occur at any age. Untreated celiac disease may result in nutritional deficiencies and the increased risk of osteoporosis, anemia, intestinal cancers, neurological disorders, infertility and development of other autoimmune diseases.

The gluten-free diet is the “medication” for treating celiac disease. The gluten-free diet is also currently a “fad diet” and is being followed by people who believe they feel better or that eating gluten-free will help them lose weight. Another reason for following the gluten-free diet is that some people are truly gluten-intolerant. These people may feel better by not eating gluten, but do not have the health risks of anemia or osteoporosis caused by untreated celiac disease. The increase in consumer demand for gluten-free products has led to an increase in the number of gluten-free products available.

Regardless of the reason a person follows a gluten-free diet, it is important to maximize nutrition when consuming one. Even though the availability of gluten-free products has grown rapidly, very few of these products are enriched with iron and B vitamins, which are found in the same gluten-containing products. For example, many gluten-free baking mixes and baked products contain significant amounts of starch that have little nutrition value. Starch is used to provide a texture that is lighter and more palatable in gluten-free products. People who follow a gluten-free diet are at increased risk of inadequate amounts of iron, calcium, fiber, whole grains and B vitamins. Buckwheat, beans, quinoa, garbanzo, brown rice, flax seed meal, chia seeds, soy, millet, amaranth and teff are good sources of fiber, whole grains and B vitamins for those on a gluten-free diet.

As a registered dietitian for two Hy-Vee supermarkets, I help people optimize their nutrition for their individual needs. I am frequently asked if the gluten-free diet is “healthier” than a gluten-containing diet. People who eat gluten and consume a diet high in saturated fat, sugar and sodium likely are missing key nutrients. Bottom line: Is the gluten-free diet healthier than the average American diet? For both diets, it depends on the nutrient-rich or “total diet” a person eats.

Here are some sources that provide science-based information on celiac disease and the gluten-free diet:

American Dietetic Association - www.eatright.org

Hy-Vee, Inc. is an employee-owned corporation and operates retail stores in eight Midwestern states. - www.hy-vee.com

The Gluten Intolerant Group - www.gluten.net

Celiac Sprue Association - www.csaceliacs.org

Dee Sandquist, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian at the Ottumwa North and Mount Pleasant Hy-Vee supermarkets in Iowa. Dee is a spokesperson for The American Dietetic Association. Prior to returning to Iowa, she served as the director of nutrition, diabetes, weight management, wellness and wound healing at Southwest Washington Medical Center, Vancouver, Washington. Dee and her husband owned and operated a gluten-free grocery store in Vancouver from 2005 to 2009.

As a nutritionist working for a supermarket, you have a unique outlook on how retailers are increasing health awareness at the store level and the kind of questions that shoppers ask. Each month, we'll be featuring a guest column, written by a nutritionist, that communicates this point of view on a variety of topics. And we want to hear from you. If you are a supermarket nutritionist interested in sharing your perspective and insights, we would love to help you share your thoughts! Please contact Allison Bloom at allison@supermarketguru.com.