Saturday, 15 April 2017

Whole Wheat or Gluten-Free: Which is Healthier?

One day, it’s good to eat whole grains, and the next, it’s bad to eat carbs. Today, everyone’s going gluten-free, and tomorrow, people will be raving about the health benefits of spelt flour (spoiler: it’s not gluten-free). Let’s take a minute to collectively sit back and say: “What the heck is going on here?”
When you’re trying to decide upon the right carbohydrate sources for your body, should you or should you not be choosing gluten-containing grains? Which kinds of carbs — gluten-free or gluten-containing — are healthier for you?


First things first, what exactly is gluten? Gluten is a type of protein that’s commonly found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. It is a viscoelastic protein, which means that it is viscous (it binds together) and elastic (it stretches). As a result, gluten is commonly added to a number of packaged foods in order to give it that “bready” texture. It’s also what makes wheat bread so yummy (and rice bread….not so much). Essentially, it holds things together.


Now, if we’re going to compare the nutritional value of whole wheat to gluten-free grains, we need to be on the same page in terms of whole wheat’s definition. Whole wheat is not synonymous with whole grain. Whole grains are simply grains that are left intact and whole, so that by the time you eat them, you’re ingesting the grain in its entirety. Whole grains can include rolled oats and brown rice, for example, both of which are gluten-free grains. 
Whole wheat is what we’re talking about here. Whole wheat is one kind of specific grain: That of wheat. Wheat itself does contain gluten, which is why whole wheat is a good contrast to gluten-free carbs like rice, oats and quinoa. So, while there are plenty of whole grains that are gluten-free, there is no such thing as a gluten-free, whole-wheat food.


It goes without saying that people who have been diagnosed with Celiac disease should steer clear of gluten. But even if you don’t believe yourself to have any gluten sensitivities, it’s possible that you’re still being impacted by gluten.
Gluten is now suspected by many doctors to be difficult to digest. In his book Grain Brain, Dr. David Perlmutter explains that most evidence points to gluten having an inflammatory effect in the body. According to Perlmutter, it’s difficult for our bodies to digest gluten, and this leads to an inflammatory response that he believes could trigger diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, arthritis and diabetes.
A paper published in the journal Nutrients found that: “An overlap between the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and NCGS {Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity} has been detected, requiring even more stringent diagnostic criteria. Several studies suggested a relationship between NCGS and neuropsychiatric disorders, particularly autism and schizophrenia.”
However, it’s worth noting that these are theories, not widely agreed-upon facts. By contrast, another study published in the journal Digestion found that 86 percent of people who believed themselves to be gluten-sensitive could actually tolerate it quite well.


So basically, there’s still a lot to learn about non-Celiac gluten sensitivity. But what do we know about the nutrients in whole wheat products versus those in gluten-free whole grains like rice or oats?
The honest answer is: All grains have slightly different levels of macro and micronutrients, but they all fulfill the same basic requirements. For example, whole wheat is higher in fiber than brown rice, but lower in protein that whole oats. All grains are generally good sources of fiber, iron and protein, so as long as you’re monitoring your intake, you should have no trouble as long as you’re eating a fresh and healthy diet.


Finally, many people become nervous that if they go gluten-free, they won’t be getting enough energy-rich carbohydrates in their diet. Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, there are a plethora of natural, gluten-free grains out there, such as rolled oats, rice and quinoa. For another, you can also get more than enough carbohydrates from grain-free carb sources such as fruits, vegetables and potatoes.


There is only one drawback you definitely need to consider if you’re going to choose gluten-free grains: Some gluten-free options are highly processed. Of course, the same note of caution applies for gluten-containing foods too, but many people who go gluten-free look for alternative sources to bread.
From gluten-free microwave dinners to gluten-free pizzas, highly processed food items are just bad news. If you’re going to eat a gluten-free diet, make sure to choose natural, wholesome foods like fruits, brown rice, oats, quinoa, sweet potatoes and vegetables as your carbohydrate sources.


So, here’s what it all boils down to: There is some evidence that eating gluten can cause inflammation in the body, and as long as you choose wholesome grain replacements, there’s no harm in going gluten free. But is it necessary? That remains to be proven.
Unless you have Celiac disease, I’m going to call this one a tie for now. Choose either wholesome whole wheat or wholesome gluten-free grains…as long as it’s real food, it has a health stamp of approval.

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