Interest in gluten-free diets has skyrocketed in recent years, with the gluten-free industry commanding a growing market that’s estimated to reach nearly 24 billion dollars by 2020. And while those with medical need have found relief in gluten-free diets, doctors have warned against undertaking a gluten-free diet without sound reason, especially for kids.
Why You Should Be Concerned if You’re Gluten-Free
Gluten-free diets pose multiple risks that many people who undertake those diets seeking wellness neither appreciate nor understand, often because they’re simply not aware of these dangers or how to mitigate them.
Gluten-free foods and grains show up with even higher levels of glyphosate than grains containing gluten. That gluten-free grains harbor high levels of glyphosate isn’t surprising given the recent revelation that farmers are encouraged to apply the chemical to their cereal crops as a dessicant which drys the grains just prior to harvest (read it here and here) The World Health Organization classifies glyphosate, a common weedkiller marketed under the name Roundup, as a probable carcinogen.
Many gluten-free grains have their own special anti-nutrient or nutritional dangers, and few, if any, gluten-free foods are processed in a way as to remove or minimize them.
Gluten-free packaged foods also command a significant premium over their regular counterparts. For those who are truly sensitive to gluten, this premium is worth the price. But putting an entire family on a gluten-free diet, especially one that leans heavily on gluten-free packaged foods like pastas, breads and cookies, can significantly increase food costs, without much reward and with potentially dangerous implications.
Weren’t many traditional people groups gluten-free?
Many groups that nutrition researchers like Weston A. Price and others have studied ate little to no gluten present in their diets.
In the early 1900s, Dr. Price engaged in groundbreaking research on the connections between diet and degenerative disease. He studied around a dozen indigenous people groups, traveling all over the world visiting various people groups – taking pictures, engaging in interviews, studying their diets and overall health in his landmark book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Some of these people groups consumed no gluten and others no grains at all, yet were superbly healthy.
At the same time, many healthy people groups, including early Americans, did enjoy diets that included gluten, yet they still enjoyed robust health. For instance, the Dinkas, a Sudanese tribe on the western bank of the Nile, didn’t reach the tall height of the cattle-herding Neurs groups, but they were physically better proportioned and had greater strength. Their diet? It mainly consisted of fish and cereal grains (source).
But both gluten-free and gluten-containing groups had a few key things in common with their diets.
- They ate diets free from industrially produced, processed foods. For the most part, these people groups were consuming nothing but real foods, traditionally prepared and properly raised, and they excluded the processed packaged foods that are ubiquitous today.
- They ate nutrient-rich diets. Healthy people groups went to great lengths to prepare foods in ways to minimize antinutrients, such as preparing sourdough breads. They also enjoyed foods that were generally far richer in minerals and nutrients than modern diets (read it here and here), and they sought out and consumed the most nutrient-dense foods available, like seafood including shellfish and fish roe, grass-fed raw and cultured dairy, and organ meats.
- They ate diets free from pesticides and herbicides. Traditional people groups had no exposure to the wide range of industrial agricultural chemicals that now taint our food supply. Gluten or gluten-free, we all are exposed to dozens of chemicals used to grow the foods that now grace our plates.
What has made gluten a problem for some people?
Gluten isn’t inherently bad, and it clearly doesn’t harm the health of large numbers of people historically or currently.
There is, especially in the US right now, a bit of a fad around gluten-free eating, and many people assume that a gluten-free diet is synonymous with a healthy diet. But it isn’t true that a gluten-free diet is inherently healthier than one that contains gluten, and, in fact, in might be more harmful owing to increased levels of heavy metals (source) and increased risk of type II diabetes (source) in its adherents.
Yet, for certain people, gluten is a problem. Why?
Celiac’s Disease, an autoimmune condition that affects about 1% of the population. For other people, FODMAPS, or certain complex carbohydrates, might be the culprit. Some attribute the gluten intolerance to the use of certain agricultural inputs and herbicides (source). Altered gut flora may be a factor for others.
For others, the fact that the majority of modern gluten-containing breads and foods are highly processed and not traditionally prepared may be part of the problem (read more in The Grain of Truth). Other people feel they do poorly on modern varieties of wheat and favor ancient grains and heirloom wheats, on which they feel they do better.
Some people truly need to avoid gluten. But others merely need to move back to more traditional varieties and preparation techniques in order to enjoy a host of traditional foods that contain grains and gluten.
So, should your kids go gluten-free?
Developing children are especially at risk when it comes to diets. Recent articles and studies highlight the damage and significant developmental problems that poor dietary choices can have on kids (read it here, here and here).
Children have low body weights compared to calorie intakes. A small, 40-pound child may still eat 1500-2000 calories a day, even though their body weight is one-third to one-sixth that of an adult who eats only a modest amount more calorie-wise. This means what is a modest exposure for an adult to a chemical or heavy metal equals up to four to six times the exposure or more for their kids.
Second, many protective systems in kids, especially small kids, are not fully developed. Thus, they are at a far greater risk when exposed to particular heavy metals and chemicals than their adult counterparts, whose immune and detoxification systems are hopefully fully formed and functioning. Also, because kids are developing, much of their bodies’ resources are busy with the tasks of growing, and they don’t have the resource reserves of fully grown adults to deal with exposure as easily.
Last, children are going through key stages of development, and during certain stages chemicals and contaminants pose a greater risk to them. Also, this risk isn’t evenly distributed. Research shows that because of genetic variations and other factors, some children are more susceptible to certain chemicals and toxins (source), with the potential to contribute to conditions like Parkinson’s disease (source and source).
Even with the amazing new genetic tests,(like this one), that we now have available, we have only a cursory understanding of when, how and for whom these risks work.
What does this have to do with gluten-free foods and diets?
Two grains make up the backbone of gluten-free diets: rice and oats. As Consumer Reports found, this backbone is bad news, especially for little bodies.
“We found that rice cereal and rice pasta can have much more inorganic arsenic—a carcinogen—than our 2012 data showed. According to the results of our new tests, one serving of either could put kids over the maximum amount of rice we recommend they should have in a week. Rice cakes supply close to a child’s weekly limit in one serving. Rice drinks can also be high in arsenic, and children younger than 5 shouldn’t drink them instead of milk.” – Consumer Reports
While Consumer Reports was looking at single ingredient prepared rice products, the gluten-free industry is heavily dependent upon rice for many of its products. You can learn more about the problems with rice, including organic rice, and what steps you can take to protect yourself here.
What should you do if you or your family needs to be gluten-free?
If your family doesn’t have an identified need to go gluten-free, consider enjoying a wide-variety of both gluten-containing and gluten-free grains prepared the traditional way, like sourdough bread or sprouted wheat flatbread.
If your family needs to go gluten-free, there’s a few measures you can take.
Avoid building your diet on rice. Owing to rice’s uptake of arsenic, rice represents one of the more problematic pieces of a gluten-free diet. Both Lundberg and Lotus Foods have addressed the issue of arsenic uptake on their website. Lundberg posts annual tests results on their website, while Lotus Foods’ products test low on the spectrum.
Focus on organic foods to minimize exposure to glyphosate. As stated above, they show troubling glyphosate contamination, often higher than gluten-containing foods. If you have to go gluten-free, be sure to go organic as much as possible as well.
Emphasize real foods cooked from scratch and minimize processed foods and gluten-free substitutes, which often contain simple sugars and starch that replace the gluten protein. If you need snacks, try foods that are naturally gluten-free like many organic jerkies, freeze-dried fruits, nuts, organic fruit and nut bars, and the like. Many root crops, such as parsnips, sweet potatoes, or autumn vegetables like spaghetti squash make great sides and substitutions for grain based-portions of meal. They’re also super nutritious.
Some of Our Favorite Wholesome Gluten-Free Recipes
Along with the host of wholesome foods available, if you take your family gluten-free, make sure to be wise when doing so. You can find all of Nourished Kitchen’s gluten-free recipes here, but below you’ll find some favorites.
Socca is a traditional flatbread made from chickpea flour that’s popular along the Mediterranean.
Sweet Potatoes Anna combines sweet potatoes with spiced ghee for an easy sidedish.
Lentil Stew with Winter Vegetables is a simple, wholesome dinner that’s easy to make and delicious.