No Medical Reason to Go Gluten-Free? Try Avoiding Processed Foods Instead

By Jeffrey Field
January 26, 2018

Gluten-freeWith better product labeling and a wider range of choices, it's easier than ever to avoid foods containing gluten. But just because you can go gluten-free doesn't mean you need to.

Gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains, causes serious gastrointestinal problems in some people. Others may wonder if gluten is the source of their health issues.

While people with celiac disease and severe gluten sensitivities will want to avoid gluten entirely, clinical dietitian Leigh Wagner, PhD, says people without those conditions might instead try cutting back on the amount of processed foods they eat.

"If you start eliminating food products that come in packages, fast foods or frozen meals, more than likely, you're going to be decreasing gluten in your diet," she says. "So it might just happen inadvertently."

Dr. Wagner, formerly of integrative medicine at The University of Kansas Health System, says that's because most of the gluten we get comes from highly processed foods, especially things like cereals, pastas, breads, bagels, muffins, doughnuts and crackers. She says by eating gluten-free versions of those foods, you're essentially swapping one processed food for another. Instead, Dr. Wagner encourages people to incorporate foods into their diets that are naturally gluten-free, including fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, good quality proteins and healthy fats and oils.

"It's not going to hurt somebody to start reducing processed foods from their diet," Dr. Wagner says.

Anyone still wanting to try eating gluten-free should get the help of a practitioner who can give the right guidance. While eliminating gluten doesn't carry much risk for most people, it could lead to vitamin deficiencies. All wheat products in the United States are fortified with B-vitamins and someone accustomed to eating a lot of breads, cereals and pasta will get a lot less of those vitamins after giving up those foods. A wide variety of other whole foods and even a B-complex vitamin supplement can help bridge the gap.

Dr. Wagner also says a gluten-free experiment will take time. She's had patients tell her that a gluten-free diet did nothing for them, only to find they'd been following it for a day or two.

"You need at least a few weeks, and I would say months, to really get transitioned away from highly processed foods and gluten-containing foods so you can see if it truly makes a difference," she says.

Dr. Wagner says there are healthy and unhealthy ways to eat within the parameters of most diets. Just as someone could have a diet of chips and soda and still technically be a vegan, many convenience foods and candies may not have gluten, but they still aren't healthy.

That's why she says, for most people, focusing on fresh produce, quality protein sources and healthy fats and oils can offer the same, and likely more, benefits as eliminating gluten.

"If you have any sorts of aches, pains, chronic sleep issues or digestive problems, removing refined and processed foods from your diet is going to be beneficial," she says.

Integrative medicine at The University of Kansas Health System can help you find the nutritional approach that's right for you. Call 913-588-6208 to make an appointment with a member of our team.

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