Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Does removing gluten make foods healthy?

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Based on some suggestions I’ve seen recently for “healthy” muffins and recipe searches for various baked goods I feel that a refresher on gluten is in order. I’m just going to put it right out there: the absence of gluten in a recipe has absolutely no bearing on how healthy it is.

For those who are unaware, gluten is a protein found in certain grains, the most common of which is wheat. Gluten helps to provide structure and texture in baked goods such as breads. Gluten is neither inherently healthy or unhealthy. Now, some people do have to avoid gluten in their diets if they have celiac disease, an allergy, or an intolerance, for that small percentage of the population, eating food containing gluten can make them sick. For the other 90-something percent of us though, gluten is perfectly healthy and safe for us to consume. In fact, some research has shown that a gluten-free diet may actually be less healthy than a glutenous diet. A gluten free diet may be low in fibre and some vitamins and minerals.

In addition, gluten free flours and packaged foods aren’t cheap. You’ll spend considerably more for gluten free products than you will for their gluten-full or potentially gluten contaminated counterparts. And while gluten free options have come a long way over the past few years, many of them are still inferior in taste and texture to regular gluten containing versions.

So, unless you have a medical condition which precludes you from eating gluten there is no health (or flavour, or financial) benefit to avoiding it. Be grateful that you don’t have to live your life in fear of being “glutened” and enjoy your gluten-filled baked goods.


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Parasites for gluten!

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A friend alerted me to this article last week. Before we look at the actual research study, I need to say this is terrible reporting. The headline proclaims: Gluten allergies may be reduced using hookworms. No. Well, maybe. But probably not, and that’s certainly not what the study was looking at. No wonder people are confused about gluten. The study looked at the effect of hookworms on gluten tolerance in individuals with celiac disease. Which, we know, is not an allergy. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which consumption of gluten results in the destruction of microvilli in the small intestine in sufferers. Gluten allergy is a hypersensitivity of the immune system to the gluten (or one of its component proteins) protein. So… if you are allergic to gluten, don’t go infect yourself with hookworms and eat a sandwich. I wouldn’t recommend doing this if you have celiac disease either.

Looking at the actual study… It was very small (12 people, two of whom withdrew from the study before completion). When a study is so small, it’s impossible to say if the results would extend to the majority of those with celiac disease. Setting aside the fact that I’m doubtful that the majority of celiac disease sufferers would willingly ingest hookworms in order to be able to consume gluten again. That being said, it’s quite interesting that the study participants were able to gradually increase their gluten intake to 3 g of spaghetti a day without experiencing any overt, nor covert (i.e. intestinal damage) symptoms of celiac disease. Of course, that’s not a lot of gluten (about one cup of pasta a day) and the study took place over 12 weeks, with the largest quantity of pasta being consumed over the final two weeks. It would be interesting to see if intestinal damage was visible after an extended period of time or if greater quantities of gluten could be consumed.

Something else that I wondered about when reading the article was any potential complications from the use of hookworms. According to the Centre for Disease Control, most people with hookworms experience no symptoms. However, some many experience gastrointestinal distress and the most serious complication is blood loss leading to anemia, and protein loss.

Essentially, celiac disease leads to nutritional deficiencies when gluten is consumed. Introducing hookworms may allow celiac disease sufferers to consume gluten but may also lead to nutrient deficiencies. Alternatively, celiac disease sufferers can follow a nutritious gluten-free diet.


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Gluten 101

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Based on the number of frustrating conversations I’ve had with people regarding gluten it seems like there are a few things that need clarification. I know that you, my lovely regular readers don’t, but on the off chance that someone in need of guidance is googling gluten perhaps they’ll stumble across this post.

Let’s start with the fact that going gluten-free is not the magical cure-all that many self-appointed nutrition gurus would have you believe. Yes, people with celiac disease, gluten allergies and intolerances will most definitely benefit from eliminating sources of gluten from their diets. However, if you are not suffering from any of these conditions (I might add self-diagnosis is not advisable) there is absolutely no need to eliminate gluten from your diet. I do believe that variety is more than the spice of life and it’s important to consume a variety of grains, too much of any one food is not going to be of benefit to your body. That being said, eliminating gluten is not a magical weight loss cure. It’s the same as eliminating any major contributor of calories; if you consume fewer calories as a result of eliminating it you will lose weight, if you simply replace those calories with those from other foods you will not lose weight. It seems like gluten is the latest villain in the dietary world. If only we could eliminate gluten then we would all be migraine-free, cured of diverticulitis,  there would be no more arthritis, or ADHD, perhaps we could even attain world peace!

Okay… so going gluten-free won’t cure everything but if you are going gluten-free the first thing you need to know is what foods contain gluten, and what foods don’t. I’ve had the fun time of trying to explain to people that if a food is gluten-free then it’s also wheat-free while they have been adamant that the reverse is true. It reminds me of the logic lessons in elementary school: all tulips are flowers, that doesn’t mean that all flowers are tulips. Gluten is found in a number of grains: wheat, rye, barley, triticale, and often oats (most oats are cross contaminated but some gluten-free oats are available and may be tolerated by people who cannot consume gluten). For a complete list of ingredients to avoid if you’re going gluten-free visit celiac.ca. You also need to be aware that there’s a risk of cross-contamination if foods are grown, processed, or prepared in close proximity to gluten-containing foods.

If you’re going gluten-free you don’t need to eliminate all grains and starchy foods. Despite what some people have tried to tell me, rice, potatoes, corn, and quinoa do not contain gluten. Celiac.ca has another great list of foods that you can eat if you’re unable to consume gluten.