Just Because Something Is Low-Carb or Gluten-Free Doesn't Mean It's Healthy

Jul 12, 2018 at 3:00 p.m. ET
Display of low-carb foods on aqua table
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There’s been a war on bread and pasta for the past few years, with many celebrities and athletes forgoing gluten and carbs, boasting that by going gluten-free and low-carb, they’ve never been happier, thinner and healthier. But just how healthy is a gluten-free or low-carb lifestyle?

“Carbs get a bad reputation because they are the main nutrient in sugary deserts, fried foods and processed snacks, but carbs are also fruits, vegetables and whole grains, which are very good for you,” NYC-based registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo tells SheKnows. “I think it’s a misconception that gluten-free is healthier.”

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Something that is gluten-free is free of those ingredients and is usually made in a facility that doesn’t contain any of those ingredients. 

While many people have adopted a gluten-free diet, a 2017 study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics found that the diet isn’t as healthy as it’s often promoted to be. 

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“GF [gluten-free] food is unlikely to offer healthier alternatives to regular foods except for those who require a GF diet for medically diagnosed conditions, and it is associated with higher costs,” the authors concluded. 

The study also found that gluten-free foods not only typically contained more saturated fat, sugar and salt than regular food items, but were also usually lower in fiber and protein content. 

“Gluten-free products can be expensive and misleading,” Dr. Robert Zembroski, a clinical nutritionist, tells SheKnows. “Companies use ‘gluten-free’ as a marketing tool to get us to buy their products. Be wary of the gluten-free trap. If a product says gluten-free, read the label. Food companies use additives, emulsifying agents and refined sugar to make foods chewy and gooey to mimic the textural effects created by gluten.”

Avoiding gluten means more than just giving up beer and pasta, he notes. "Gluten is found in many food products, such as soy sauces and natural flavorings," Zembroski says. "Gluten has also been found in toothpaste and medications. So, going gluten-free can be challenging.”

Rizzo agrees, noting that eating gluten-free can be limiting, and many people turn to processed snacks and foods to replace the gluten-containing foods they are omitting. 

“If you’re substituting your processed snacks with processed gluten-free snacks, you likely won’t see any major benefits," she explains. "Many gluten-free snacks have just as many calories, sugar and sodium as the ones that contain gluten. Another drawback is that omitting grains may mean missing out on fiber, which helps with digestion and satiation.” 

The phenomenon behind the low-carb diet is the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis, which poses that in order to lose weight, you must reduce the amount of carb calories you eat and replace them with fat calories. This way, you are driving down your insulin levels, which in turn help you burn calories. 

However, most low-carb diets tout consuming foods like meat and eggs, which happen to be rich in saturated fat and cholesterol, while some low-carb diets might even encourage not eating fruit, which provides fiber. 

“The major drawback I see with low-carb is not eating enough fruits and vegetables. Most people don’t eat enough produce each day, and going low carb makes that even more difficult,” says Rizzo. “I also think whole grains have their place in a healthy diet since they contribute fiber and protein. Cutting those out can lead to nutrient deficiencies.” 

Carbs are the main energy source for activity, she adds, noting that cutting carbs means you may feel more fatigued while working out.

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And for those who think low-carb diets mean weight loss? Not so fast. A lengthy study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association pitted a low-carb diet against a low-fat diet to determine their relationship to weight loss. It turns out that neither diet is superior. In fact, the study concluded that it’s the quality of someone’s diet — meaning one that is filled with a wide array of healthy protein, vegetables, fruits and whole grains — that accounts for more weight loss. 

“Personally, I don’t recommend low-carb because I think many carbs have their place in a healthy diet,” says Rizzo. “And I like to help people make lasting changes that can become a lifestyle. I think a low-carb diet is more of a quick fix than anything else.”

Though going gluten-free or low-carb might not have much-needed health benefits or lead to significant weight loss, Zembroski does point out that it’s important to go for testing if you suspect you have an allergy. “If you suspect a sensitivity to gluten or you suffer from any numerous autoimmune issues, leaky gut and other gut issues or if you want to know if it’s worth going gluten-free, consider specific testing,” he says. “Eliminating gluten will reduce the risk of developing a health issue for those genetically susceptible to the abnormal immune reactions it creates."

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