Are gluten-free diets really healthier?

For the roughly 1 percent of people diagnosed with true gluten enteropathy, there is no doubt that avoiding it improves their overall health and quality of life. That means avoiding the gluten protein found in grains like wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a cross between the wheat and rye).

But for the remaining 99 percent of us, we stumble about like toddlers lost in a gluten-free cornfield maze.

Like most things, the problems seem to stem from perception and misinformation. And in the ensuing chaos, as the saying goes, there is opportunity. In 2013, the gluten-free market was valued to be worth about $10.5 billion and with a growth rate of almost 50 percent, it is estimated to be at $15.6 billion by 2016.

What is driving this explosive growth is not an epidemic of celiac sprue, but an opinion that consuming gluten-free products leads to better health. Almost 25 to 30 percent of Americans currently claim to be avoiding breads and other baked goods because of gluten. And the onset of claims, celebrity endorsements, books, diets and assorted programs not always based on fact have added gluten-free fuel to the fire.

The conventional wisdom that any product which is gluten-free is a healthier alternative is the main driver for over a third of those who are willing to pay more for these products. About a quarter of people believe that going gluten free is a weight loss strategy. About 20 percent purchase gluten-free products as part of a general lower carbohydrate approach and 15 percent say there is a household member who is wheat or gluten intolerant.

Only 7 percent of consumers who buy gluten-free products report that it is due to celiac disease. Gluten-free has fallen into the marketing vernacular along with phrases like soy-free, dairy-free, low-sodium, low-fat, fat-free, and all-natural.

But there is a potential dark side to gluten-free. Many of the offerings, while gluten-free, are still highly processed and refined. Unlike their conventional gluten counterparts, these products are often not enriched or fortified with essential vitamins and minerals. This can result in an unbalanced dietary approach with resultant micronutrient deficiencies. Such potential deficiencies include insufficient intake of iron, folate, niacin, thiamine, calcium, vitamin B12, phosphorus, and zinc.

Being highly processed and refined, many of these gluten-free choices can result in a diet that is low in fiber. Specific non-digestible oligosaccharides like those found in whole-grain products are critical to maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. Gluten-free diets have been associated with lower levels of beneficial Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. A healthy gut microbiome is being increasingly recognized as a key component to maintaining health and wellness and avoiding disabilities and diseases of modern civilization.

There is no doubt that the dietary choices involving the modern Western diet have significant economic, societal and individual ramifications. And while avoiding an entire box of Ho-Hos because it has gluten (not to mention sugar, artificial preservatives, flavorings and the like) may result in weight loss and improved physical well-being; substituting an entire party size bag of Cheetos because it is gluten-free is a bit like changing deck chairs on the Titanic.

Many gluten-free products are loaded with sugar and other undesirables. Several studies have demonstrated that many gluten-free diets are as unhealthy – and in some cases more unhealthy – as the typical modern Western diet. Simply substituting one over-processed, artificially preserved, prepackaged and pre-prepared item for gluten-free version of the same will not lead you unto health and wellness. It will however, leave you feeling lighter if only by the fewer dollars left in your wallet.

Dr. Michael S. Fenster, also known as Dr. Mike, just released his newest book, Fallacy of the Calorie. He  is best known for his renovated approach to food and health, which resulted in the Grassroots Gourmet™: delicious food that fosters well-being through promoting metabolic health. Dr. Mike loves to combine his culinary talents with his medical expertise. Dr. Mike is a Board Certified Interventional Cardiologist and has published original cardiovascular research that has appeared in peer reviewed scientific and medical journals. As a result, he has been asked participate on numerous medical advisory boards and participate in cardiovascular thought leader symposiums throughout the country. But Dr. Mike’s culinary career began before he ever attended medical school. He received his culinary degree in gourmet cooking and catering from Ashworth University where he graduated with honors.