Going Gluten-Free Just to "Eat Clean" Could Hurt Your Heart

Not all gluten-free products are created equal, says registered dietitian Abby Langer—in fact, some of this stuff isn't even good for you. Read on for the full scoop

Gluten-free heart study: white grain quinoa in white heart shaped bowl on a dark blue wood background.

Going gluten-free when you don’t absolutely need to could hurt your heart (Photo: iStock)

“Gluten” gets tossed around like it’s a bad word. Chances are your favourite lifestyle blogger told you she’s cutting it out of her diet to “eat clean,” or you’ve heard celebs rave about how going g-free helped them shift a few pounds. It’s a trend I had hoped would have died already—I’m a registered dietitian who spends a good deal of my time convincing people why a bowl of pasta isn’t the enemy.

Now I’ve got more back-up. There’s a new study that should scare you if you’ve hopped on the gluten-free bandwagon and don’t have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity (yes, it’s a real thing). I say this as someone who isn’t into scare tactics—especially when it comes to nutrition—because another very real part of my job is dispelling diet myths (Gwyneth, I’m throwing obvious shade at you and all your Goop right now).

About the study

The study says going gluten-free just because could increase the amount of waxy plaque in your arteries, upping your risk of coronary heart disease.

At first I was skeptical when I heard about it. When research gets a lot of hype in the media, I mostly find it involves studies that share little substance and are short on new information. But this study is different.

First, it uses data from the Nurses’ Health Study, which has followed 64,714 women and 45,303 across the U.S. since 1986. Already that’s a signal to me that there’s some credibility to its findings.

But it’s the conclusion that really stands out: by eliminating whole grains from your diet, you miss out on key nutrients, like fibre and antioxidants, that may actually help prevent heart disease. But, it’s not avoiding gluten itself that ups your risk of getting sick; it’s what you’re replacing the gluten with in your diet that’s causing long-term problems.

Not all gluten-free products are equal

It’s true, people on gluten-free diets may lose weight initially—because they could be cutting out gluten-containing high-calorie food like pizza or cookies. But once the gluten-free versions of those foods are added into their diets, all bets are off.

We’ve already learned over the last few years that not all gluten-free products are created equal. Some are made to mimic gluten-containing products like pasta, cookies, cakes and bread—meaning they likely contain ultra-refined rice or corn flour replacements, less fibre and possibly more sugar. Why would you turn down *real* bread or pasta for that extra junk, if you didn’t have to?

If you believe you may have a gluten sensitivity, eliminating it from your diet is the only scientifically sound test (I’m not a fan of any those sensitivity tests that charge $400 to tell you what you *may* be sensitive to). Even then, choose your gluten-free food wisely. And even better, don’t cut out all healthy carbs, because many of them don’t contain gluten.

Here are a few tips on how to put healthy carbs back into your diet, even if you’re gluten-free.

You can still eat carbs

Don’t be afraid of them, just choose the right ones. I swear, my throat is getting dry from repeating that so often.

Pick high-quality grains and grain products that are less refined (read: not junky carbs), such as Ezekiel bread, wheat berries and spelt pasta, to name a few.

Even if you’re avoiding gluten, healthy fibre-rich grains like black rice, buckwheat (yes, it’s g-free!), sorghum, and teff are all nutrient-rich and easy to cook. Check out my black rice breakfast pudding or sorghum taboule for inspo.

Don’t fear pasta

Just don’t eat a bucket of it! If you’ve ever been to Italy, you know that serving sizes are nothing like what you’d find in big chain Italian restaurants here. The size of a fist is enough, and you can boost the nutrition of regular or gluten-free pasta by adding legumes like chickpeas, along with lots of vegetables.

Speaking of legumes, don’t count those out!

Black beans, chickpeas, lentils and all the other legumes (otherwise known as pulses) are rich in fibre and  protein and are a healthy source of carbohydrates. They’re also gluten-free.

Look at the ingredient list

Even if something is labelled “gluten-free,” you’ll still want to check to see how much sugar it contains. If it’s a bread for example, you’ll want 0-1 gram of sugar per serving. With stuff like yogurt, there are natural sugars, but you want to make sure the number on the label is as low as possible. To keep numbers in perspective, remember 4 grams of sugar is the equivalent of one teaspoon of granulated sugar—and you wouldn’t want to heap that any food.

Bottom line: junk food, even when it’s gluten-free, organic, or low in fat, is still junk. And over time, it likely isn’t doing your heart any good.

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