Avoiding foods with gluten has become a lot more common. You can find gluten-free breads, cereals, pastas, and crackers at most supermarkets, and an increasing number of restaurants offer gluten-free dishes. When you remove gluten from your diet, though, which nutrients might you be missing?
What is gluten?
Gluten is a type of protein found in the grains wheat, barley, rye, and spelt, as well as in foods that contain these ingredients. However, not all grains contain gluten; amaranth, arrowroot, buckwheat, cassava, corn, flax, millet, rice, and some other grains are naturally gluten-free.
Why avoid gluten?
There are many reasons that people adopt a gluten-free diet. People who suffer from celiac disease cannot digest gluten, and may experience cramping, gas, diarrhea, and bloating when they consume foods made with this protein. Gluten sensitivity, which is a problem for some people, may cause symptoms similar to celiac disease when sufferers eat gluten-rich foods. Finally, some folks avoid gluten because they follow a dietary regimen that excludes grains, such as the Paleo diet, or one that is low-carb, such as the Atkins diet. If you are avoiding gluten, don’t worry, InsideTracker can offer gluten-free nutrition advice.
Which nutrients are associated with gluten?
Gluten itself is a protein. Beyond that, however, many flours that contain gluten have added nutritional benefits. In order to improve the health of their populations during the Second World War, the United States and Britain began to enrich flour with certain nutrients. Enriching a food simply means that the manufacturer has added nutrients to replace vitamins and minerals lost during processing. The term fortifying refers to the addition of nutrients at levels beyond those that occur naturally in food. Today, most conventional (gluten-containing) pastas, cereals, and breads are made from flour that is enriched or fortified with iron and B vitamins. This public health practice of enriching food with nutrients has helped to reduce the incidence of birth defects, anemia, and other conditions.
Unlike wheat flour, gluten-free flours – typically made from rice flour, tapioca starch, sorghum flour, or potato starch – are not usually enriched or fortified. These flours may contain much smaller amounts of B vitamins and iron than whole grain or even highly processed white flour products. So how can you tell whether you are getting enough of these nutrients? The only way to truly know your nutritional status is to analyze the biomarkers in your blood through blood analysis with an InsideTracker Plan.
Because the typical American diet relies so heavily on gluten-containing foods that have been fortified or enriched, people whose diets are primarily composed of gluten-free flours often miss out on some key nutrients. If you’re going gluten-free, make sure you’re consuming sufficient amounts of these key nutrients:
Fiber helps your body to slow the absorption of sugar into the blood, works to improve your digestion, and makes you feel fuller for longer. According to the Institute of Medicine, women should consume 25 grams of fiber per day and men should about 38 grams. Grain-based foods account for about 44 percent of total fiber intake among Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Although the gluten-free versions of bread, pasta, and cereal are notoriously low in this nutrient, there are plenty of naturally gluten-free high-fiber foods besides grain-based products! Beans, fruit, vegetables, and nuts are also excellent sources of fiber, so try to increase your intake of these foods if you’re going gluten-free.
Folic acid (also known as folate) is a water-soluble B-vitamin, and ddults need about 400µg per day of folic acid. Folic acid plays two important roles: it is vital for production of new cells and helps prevent birth defects of a baby’s brain and spine. Therefore, women of childbearing age should consume at least 600µg per day (and up to 800µg per day) at least one month before they plan to become pregnant. Federal law requires that manufacturers add folic acid to wheat-based breads, cereals, flours, corn meals, pastas, rice, and other grain products to prevent birth defects in women who aren’t consuming adequate amounts of the vitamin in their typical diet, but this requirement is not extended to gluten-free products. If you’re eating gluten-free, consume lots of green leafy vegetables, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, and lentils to get adequate folic acid.
Iron is an essential mineral that is a part of the protein hemoglobin, which is found in all the body’s red blood cells. Hemoglobin works to supply the muscles and other organs with enough oxygen, as well as to help the body to convert carbohydrates and fat into energy. In the United States, wheat flour is enriched with iron to compensate for the loss of the nutrient when wheat is refined to flour, but very few gluten-free flours are fortified with iron. If you’re deficient in iron (the Recommended Dietary Allowance of iron for adult women is 18 milligrams a day, and 8 milligrams for adult men), you probably have lower levels of red blood cells and hemoglobin, which can negatively impact athletic performance and overall wellbeing. Meats, leafy green vegetables, fish, and shellfish are good sources of iron, so be sure to incorporate those foods into your diet.
How to add nutrients to a gluten-free diet
The best way to avoid nutritional deficiencies on a gluten-free diet is to eat whole foods. In addition to fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, eggs, poultry, and dairy products are also great sources of iron, fiber, and B vitamins. Essentially, the more variety in your diet, the less likely you are to suffer from a nutritional deficiency. If you have celiac disease or have just made the decision to cut gluten from your diet, try to rely less on gluten-free processed foods and instead eat more whole foods. If you’re confused about what foods you can and can’t eat on a gluten-free diet, InsideTracker has a gluten-free option that shows foods that will meet your needs!
Remember, just because a label says that a product is “gluten free”, doesn’t mean that it’s healthier! A gluten-free cookie doesn’t necessarily contain fewer calories or more nutrients than a conventional cookie, so be sure to stick to whole, unprocessed foods to get the most nutrients from your diet.