Understanding Gluten vs. Carbohydrates in the World of Dieting

With so much information out there regarding healthy eating and dieting, what to eat and what to avoid, it is no wonder people get confused.  Over the years we’ve seen low-fat diets and low-carbohydrate diets, grapefruit diets, paleo diets, all meat diets and so on. Today we hear a lot about gluten and its role in a healthy diet.  We also hear a lot about low-carb diets. But what’s the real story with carbohydrates and gluten? Is going gluten-free just another “diet” on the long list of “diets?”

Part of the confusion seems to be that many think gluten and carbohydrates are the same thing when they are not. The truth is that gluten refers to proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye while carbohydrates consist of sugar molecules. It is true that many of the foods that contain gluten also contain carbohydrates, such as baked goods and processed foods, because wheat flour is used in most of these, but gluten-free does not mean low-carb. Due to this confusion, a lot of people are avoiding gluten when what they are trying to avoid are carbohydrates.

In answer to the question about avoiding gluten, the answer is yes, there are people who should avoid gluten. People who have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called Celiac Disease, for example. In Celiac Disease,  the immune system attacks the small intestine every time gluten is ingested. This is a serious health problem and the only cure is to completely eliminate gluten from the diet. There are also those who have a “gluten intolerance” or “gluten sensitivity.” The body’s reaction isn’t as severe as with Celiac Disease, but one can experience gastrointestinal upset after consuming it.

But, what if you do not have Celiac Disease or a sensitivity? Is living gluten-free healthier in general? This is a question that is frequently debated by doctors and scientists. Some say that humans have been consuming wheat from the beginning of time and that the average person tolerates it very well. Others say that it contributes to a host of serious health problems like diabetes, obesity and even Alzheimer’s Disease.  And there are many opinions that fall somewhere in the middle.

One thing that most agree on, though, is that people who are avoiding gluten, especially for weight loss,  should be cautious about eating pre-packaged foods labeled “gluten-free.” While the grain used may not be wheat, rye, or barley, the products often still contain sugar and preservatives. Because the food industry usually responds to the newest “diet” by offering products that conform to its guidelines, the consumer can be easily persuaded to purchase these products thinking they are doing the right thing. But, if we replace our boxed cookies with gluten-free boxed cookies, we are not any further ahead.

We should use the same care when reducing carbohydrates. Not all carbohydrates are bad. In fact, carbohydrates are essential in our diets. But, they are not all created equal, so it is important to understand them and the role they play in our bodies. Simple carbohydrates are found in high sugar items (even fruits and other foods high in natural sugar), while complex carbohydrates are found in foods like vegetables, beans, and grains. Simple carbs are made of only one or two sugar molecules and are digested very quickly, leading to quick energy. Complex carbs are made from long chains of sugars, are digested much more slowly, and are often rich in fiber, resulting in a more constant energy. This difference can impact blood sugar, among other aspects of our health. Knowing this, we should choose our carbs wisely.

In the end, regardless of where they lean in the gluten-free or low-carb debate, most healthcare professionals agree that specialized “diets” rarely work long-term. Most just put us in a temporary state of deprivation from which we are almost destined to fail. Instead, many healthcare professionals emphasize the importance of well-rounded and healthy eating where we are fueling our bodies with the nutrients it needs while avoiding foods that are high in sugar and low in nutrition.