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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A little nitpicking in pursuit of scientific literacy

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I was reading this article a couple of weeks ago and was bothered by a couple of minor errors. The article’s kind of all over the place so I wasn’t even sure that I would bother blogging about it but since, as I type this, I’m at the airport waiting for my delayed flight to arrive I figured that I may as well.

Issue #1:

In 2015, nearly 13% of U.S. households experienced food insecurity (the current term for “hunger”). Many more are forced to rely on poor-quality foods that lead to obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Well, actually food insecurity is much more complex than “hunger” and people who cannot afford adequate, nutritious food very often fall into that group of people experiencing food insecurity. For a nice concise one-pager about food insecurity, check out this factsheet from Dietitians of Canada. Also, obviously, just because someone is hungry doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re experiencing food insecurity. Food insecurity is a result of inadequate income; not a strenuous workout or a light lunch.

Issue #2:

none of the flour available to consumers is ground from GMO grains.

While genetically modified wheat is not commercially available, corn flour would often be produced from GM corn. Many gluten-free flours contain ingredients such as sugar beets that are genetically modified.

Issue #3:

Gluten-free is very popular right now, but even if you are one of the 1% of Americans with celiac disease, marketers are fooling you. Whole Foods sells “gluten-free” baby shampoo. First, please don’t eat baby shampoo. Second, gluten is a protein found in wheat. Meats, cheeses and personal care products don’t normally have wheat in them.

Actually, many shampoos and other personal care products do contain wheat. For children who have celiac disease or who are following a ketogenic diet for epilepsy, their doctors may advise parents to ensure all such products are gluten-free to err on the side of caution. Kids are curious, many of them will put soap in their mouths, or eat shampoo bubbles. I don’t think making cautious parents feel foolish is helpful. Maybe that’s just me though. Whole meats and cheeses do not contain gluten but breadings or sauces may contaminate these foods, pre-shredded cheese may have flour added to prevent clumping, and some cheeses are cultured on gluten-containing grains.

Aside from these issues, I agree with the author’s assertion that food-borne illness is a real concern. I think that this will continue to grow as we see a decreasing number of manufacturers producing an increasing amount of our food. We should also avoid food fads and endeavour to improve our scientific literacy.

 


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The bloody blood type diet is back

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If you really want to drive a dietitian to drink you should have a conversation about ridiculous fad diets in front of her/him (yes, there are a few male RDs, I swear). But I digress. So, here I am, innocently minding my business, when a couple of women nearby start conversing about their gluten-free diets and how much better they feel when they actually follow them. As in, when they “cheat” they eat a bunch of processed refined glutenous food. Then, as if I’m not being tormented enough, one of them starts extolling the virtues of the blood type diet. Yes, I too thought that one was passé. I guess, like mullets and crocs, we will never truly be free of the “eat for your blood type diet”. If you haven’t heard of it you’re lucky. I’m not going to provide you with a link because if you honestly want to read about that drivel you can google it.

Yes, woman number two proceeds to tell woman number one about how great she feels when she’s following it and lists a number of the foods she can eat on this diet. All of them are nutritious whole foods. Both women marvel at the miracle of gluten-free blood-type diets. I begin to question if I am perhaps dead and have gone to hell.

Ladies, I hate to rain on your fad diet parade but it’s not the gluten. It has nothing to do with eating for your blood type. You feel better when you’re not eating copious quantities of crap food because you’re not eating copious quantities of crap food. You don’t need a cleanse or a ridiculous diet to feel better. Just prepare and eat healthy food about 80% of the time and for the love of all that’s holy (or whatever), please don’t have these conversations in front of dietitians or your children. Children learn by observing and if they see their parent(s) struggling with food issues, following fad diets, falling off diets, guess who’s liable to end up following suit?


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The harm in fad diets

Many of us roll our eyes when we hear about people on fad diets. I think that most of us think, “oh well, it’s not doing them any harm. Let it run its course”. But what if these diets are doing people harm?  I’m not about fear mongering, you know this. Many of these trendy diets can be safe and healthy when followed properly. However, what about when they’re not? There is reasonable risk of deficiencies that could cause some degree of harm at worst, and at best prevent the adherents from attaining optimal health.

What’s the harm in a low-carb or gluten-free or paleo diet?

I’m lumping these two in together even though they’re not strictly the same, although it seems that they frequently go hand-in-hand. Here the risk lies in B vitamin deficiency. Yes, many B vitamins are available from animal foods. However, folic acid (which I blogged about a few weeks ago) was added to refined flour and cereals as a public health measure to prevent neural tube defects during pregnancy in 1998 (1). Eliminating grains from the diet may lead to increased risk of spina bifida, and other neural tube defects, in infants of mothers following these diets. It’s recommended that all women of childbearing age take a multivitamin containing 400 mcg of folic acid daily. Women who are following the above diets should be sure to follow this recommendation. The crucial window for neural tube formation is within the first 21-28 days of pregnancy. This means that if you wait to start taking a prenatal multivitamin once you find out you’re pregnant you may have already missed this window.

What’s the harm in a vegan diet?

While touted as one of the healthiest diets, a vegan diet can easily be deficient in essential nutrients. As with the low-carb diets above, a vegan diet may be low in some B vitamins. In this case, vitamin B12 is more likely to be the B vitamin of concern than is folic acid.

Vitamin B12 is important for many reasons. We need B12 for blood cell formation, nerve function, and brain function.

Vitamin D is also a concern in vegan diets as it’s primarily found in milk, fish, and eggs. During the winter months it’s difficult for most of us, vegans and non-vegans alike, to get enough vitamin D from food alone.

What’s the harm in a low-sodium diet?

This isn’t even so much a risk of low-sodium diet but of a diet that eschews table salt in particular. Now that sea salt is the salt selection of foodies and many of us are avoiding salt shakers there is potential for insufficient iodine consumption. Table salt is fortified with iodine, sea salt is not.

Iodine deficiency during pregnancy can result in poor mental development. Iodine is important in thyroid function and deficiency may result in the development of a goiter.

Now, to be fair, when consideration of balance, variety, and nutrients is taken into consideration all of these diets may be healthy. I think that it’s also worth mentioning that the average Western diet is probably less nutritious than all of the above diets. Most people consume too few vegetables and fruits, too much sodium, sugar, and fat. Most of us, even those of us consuming relatively healthy diets, don’t get enough potassium, vitamin D, magnesium, and fibre. While the focus should definitely be on whole food, it’s worth considering what nutrients your diet may be low in and making an effort to consume more foods rich in those nutrients or even considering taking a supplement if you’re finding it hard to meet your nutrient needs through food alone.


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Why gluten-free OJ isn’t completely ridiculous

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I keep hearing people mock foods that are labelled gluten-free such as orange juice and corn chips. Because these foods naturally do not contain gluten they think that labelling them as GF is laughable and simply capitalizing on the trendiness of GF diets. Sure, they may be taking advantage of the popularity of GF diets at the moment but I don’t think that’s a good reason to complain. For people who have celiac disease every label must be carefully scrutinized for glutinous ingredients. Even if a food doesn’t contain any gluten, it may still have come in contact with a gluten-containing food during processing. Yes, it may seem a little absurd to label  OJ gluten-free but it can help to put your mind at ease if you do need to follow a strict gluten-free diet.