What’s the Deal with Gluten-Free Foods?

Question Mark Photo Credit: Steven Goodwin

Perhaps you’ve noticed many items in the grocery store now have the words “gluten-free” on their labels, or “gluten-free” menu options appearing at your favorite restaurant.  Gluten-free foods seem to be everywhere lately, and gluten-free diets have developed a reputation for being an all-around healthier way to eat (helped along by numerous celebrity endorsements).  But what is gluten, and is there really a reason to avoid it?

Gluten is a protein found naturally in wheat, barley and rye.  It helps give breads and other baked goods their chewy texture, and can sometimes be used to thicken sauces and soups.  Most of us can eat products containing gluten with no problems.  For some people, though, eating foods containing gluten can lead to serious health concerns.  People with celiac, an autoimmune disease affecting a small portion of the population, are gluten intolerant.  Eating even a small amount of gluten causes a reaction in the body that damages the small intestine so that it is unable to absorb nutrients in food.  According to the American Diabetes Association, about 10% of people with Type 1 Diabetes also have celiac.

There are also some people who have gluten sensitivity, meaning they experience unpleasant reactions to eating gluten (gas, bloating, diarrhea, etc.) but do not have the damage to the small intestine associated with celiac.  Only a medical professional can diagnose celiac (it requires a blood test and a biopsy of the intestine).  If you have any questions or concerns, it’s best to talk with your health care provider.

So should you start eating gluten-free?  Well if you have celiac, a gluten-free diet is mandatory and a nutritionist can help create an eating plan that works for you.  If you don’t have any type of gluten sensitivity, then there’s really no reason to spend the extra money on gluten-free foods.  Just because an item is gluten-free, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthier – in fact some products can be higher in calories and fat (and lower in some nutrients like fiber) than similar products containing gluten.   A diet emphasizing fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy while limiting packaged and processed foods will serve you well.  Just make sure you’re watching your portion size!

(Content reviewed by MGH Nutrition Department. Photo credit: Steven Goodwin)

Weight Management (Part 2)

Debra Hollon, MS, RD, CDE, LDN
Senior Clinical Nutritionist 

Red apple, tape measure and stethescope. Photo Credit: sanja gjenero

The American Society for Nutrition published a study showing any diet works as long as you stick with it.  That last part is the most important.  Any diet that reduces calories will help you lose weight, but only if you keep it up.  Think about the fad diets out there that are built around eating one particular food exclusively, or cut out an entire food group.  These kinds of diet plans restrict calories, but the variety of foods you can eat is very limited and there’s rarely any plan for long-term commitment.  Considering this, how long can you really stick with it?  

A healthy diet is one that emphasizes fruits and veggies, whole grains and low-fat dairy as well as lean protein like poultry and fish, beans and nuts.  It’s also low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.  Whole grains and vegetables are both good sources of fiber which, in addition to keeping your digestive system healthy, helps fill you up so feel less hungry.  Fish, nuts and seeds are sources of good fats that keep your heart healthy.  

Now, we’ve said that the key to losing weight is reducing your calorie intake.  But it’s not a good idea to do so by skipping meals—especially not breakfast.  Going long periods without eating can actually make you so hungry that you overeat at your next meal.  Instead, plan out small meals throughout the day; it will help control hunger and keep your blood sugar levels steady.  And, breakfast really is the most important meal of the day:  eating a good breakfast keeps you full throughout the morning so you’re less likely to overeat later. 

When you reach your weight loss goals, your next challenge is to maintain it.  For some this can be just as difficult as losing it, but many of the same strategies you used to lose the weight will help you keep it off long-term.  Unfortunately there’s no one-size-fits-all plan for weight loss, but just remember that losing even a few pounds will help with managing your Diabetes.  If you have questions about your weight, talk to your health care provider or a Registered Dietitian. 

Photo Credit: sanja gjenero