When Gluten is a Good Thing

July 5, 2015 by  
Filed under Dietary Patterns, Digestion


Gluten-free foods continue to be seen by many as superior to gluten-containing foods. According to Food Navigator, in the 5 years leading up to 2014, gluten-free food sales grew 34% each year. While gluten sensitivities and Celiac disease do affect a growing number of individuals, for the majority of people gluten does not need to be avoided.

Celiac disease is a diagnosable condition, an autoimmune reaction to gluten, which is a protein in wheat, barley, and rye. It is estimated that 1 in 133 Americans have Celiac disease, many of whom do not know it. Others may be gluten sensitive without being celiac and this makes up about 6% of the U.S. population. A third group have self-diagnosed themselves as either celiac or sensitive to gluten or avoid gluten simply because they feel gluten is unhealthy for reasons such as it causes undesirable weight gain or decreased energy levels.

For those of you who don’t fall into the Celiac or gluten sensitive categories, here are some reasons why not to fear gluten:

  • Gluten-free products are more refined in order to remove the protein, gluten. This means they lack the whole grain, which provides tons fiber and other beneficial nutrients.
  • Many gluten-free seeking individuals will avoid grains all together. This can lead to deficiencies in many essential nutrients like calcium, iron, thiamin, folate, niacin, and riboflavin.
  • Attempting to follow a gluten-free diet may cause a decrease in the beneficial bacteria in the gut. These bacteria thrive on the beneficial fiber found in whole grains. Maintaining healthy gut bacteria leads to a stronger immune system.
  • Packaged and processed gluten-free foods are typically more expensive than whole fods. Unless you really depend on a gluten-free diet, you can easily save money by purchasing conventional whole grain products.
  • Currently, no studies show evidence that eliminating gluten leads to an increase in energy. Gluten aside, consuming more fruits and vegetables and less processed foods may cause feelings of increased energy due to healthy food choices.
  • Gluten free does not necessarily lead to weight loss. However, making healthy food choices can lead to weight loss. For example, choosing quinoa over white bread. On the contrary, many gluten-free products use potato starch instead of wheat flour, which lacks the beneficial fiber and nutrients found in wheat flour.

While it’s always a good idea to cut back on packaged and processed refined grain foods, if you don’t have a medical necessity, don’t fear gluten if it comes from whole grains!

Special thanks to dietetic intern Brittany South for her contributions to this post.

Does Tryptophan in Turkey Cause Food Coma?

November 26, 2014 by  
Filed under Digestion, Protein


You hear it every year around Thanksgiving time: the turkey is to blame for your after dinner food coma. But is that really true?

As with most things in internet nutrition lore – the answer is, “Not exactly.”

Tryptophan is one of the 9 essential amino acids that your body can’t process, so it needs to get from food.

Complete proteins contain all 9 essential amino acids, and all animal foods are complete proteins. Since turkey is an animal food, it falls in this category.

Tryptophan plays many roles in the body, but one thing it does is serve as a precursor to serotonin, a sleep inducing chemical. Hence…the turkey tryptophan and sleep connection.

But the reality is, there is no more tryptophan in turkey than in many other animal or meat products.

The real reason you’re probably falling asleep after Thanksgiving is because you’re sated (or oversated) and ready to start digesting all of those nutrients, including the tryptophan!

You can learn more about the tryptophan – and other nutrient content – of your favorite foods by using the USDA’s Nutrient Database sort by nutrient website search (select Tryptophan from the dropdown menu).

Should You Be Gluten Free?

October 17, 2013 by  
Filed under Carbohydrates, Digestion, Protein

Gluten is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat, barley and rye (and related grains). It is found in the endosperm of the grain kernel and consists of the proteins gliadin and gluterin. Gluten gives elasticity to dough, helping it rise and keeps its shape.  You may have heard or read about the health benefits of gluten-free diets and seen numerous gluten-free products in the grocery store. Proponents of gluten-free diets claim that this dietary pattern promotes weight loss and may be beneficial in numerous other ways, such as helping those with osteoporosis, anemia and diabetes. Have you wondered if this is true? Have scientific studies been conducted to back up these claims? Let’s take a closer look at some the purported health benefits and also consider who may benefit most from a gluten-free diet.

There are indeed folks that have to avoid gluten at all costs, namely, those suffering from celiac disease (also frequently called celiac sprue). This autoimmune disorder occurs in genetically predisposed people from early life onwards. People with celiac disease experience pain and discomfort in the GI tract, chronic constipation, fatigue and other symptoms. The underlying cause is related to gluten exposure. In those with celiac disease, an enzyme in the epithelium of the GI tract reacts with gluten proteins and causes an immune reaction whereby the immune system attacks the small bowel tissue. This causes an inflammatory reaction and as a result, the villi of the epithelium are blunted and malabsorption of many nutrients occurs. The only treatment for celiac disease is life-long adherence to a gluten-free diet. Clearly the preponderance of gluten-free products now available in the grocery stores benefits those with the disease. But what about other individuals, can they also benefit from gluten-free foods?

How about going gluten-free for weight loss? Gluten-free diets tend to be similar in energy content to traditional diets, but more careful planning when going gluten-free may promote making healthier food choices. So from this perspective, gluten-free may promote weight loss, for reasons not directly related to gluten. Does avoiding gluten help those with the other disorders listed above? There are few properly controlled scientific studies to support many of the gluten-free claims, so it’s hard to know for sure. Another consideration is the foods that you might avoid by going gluten-free, such as breads, pastas and other grain products. Given that these foods are important dietary sources of B vitamins, fiber, iron and other nutrients in the American diet, avoidance of them may increase risk for various nutrient deficiencies.

Certainly, the incidence of celiac disease is increasing in the U.S. Current estimates are that 1:100 people may have celiac disease and some of them may be undiagnosed. For these individuals, going gluten-free is necessary and will often dramatically improve quality of life. From this perspective, the current popularity of going gluten-free is beneficial. The real question though is, how beneficial is gluten avoidance for the other 99/100 people in the U.S.?