Is Gluten-Free Synonymous with Healthy?

May 11, 2015

With about 30% of Americans indicating that they feel like they should “cut down or be free of gluten” (according to a survey), it’s important to make sure your nutrient intake is sufficient and your diet balanced should you decide to take this on. So before you ditch bread and pasta, consider this.


If you’re not one of those among us who need to live gluten-free, a gluten-free diet won’t really provide a major benefit to your health. You heard me. Experts say there’s no real benefit to going gluten-free if you don’t need to make that change. (Is that a choir of angels I hear?)


What’s more, people who ditch gluten just because it’s the latest thing may do so at the expense of their health and wellness.


It’s simple, really. Whole grains that contain gluten are a good source of fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. Gluten-free products are often highly processed and as a result, lower in nutrients. So many people who adopt a gluten-free stance eat a lot of foods that are stripped of nutrients. Gluten-free diets that are not carefully balanced can result in deficiencies in iron, folate, niacin, thiamine, calcium, vitamin B12, phosphorous, zinc…and of course, fiber.


That’s not to say you can’t eat a healthy, well-balanced diet without gluten. You absolutely can, but you must be certain you are getting the nutrients you need and not simply taking in calories that don’t contain gluten. So many people confuse gluten-free with healthy and it’s not always the case.


There’s nothing magical about gluten-free eating…unless you have celiac disease or an allergy…and then it feels pretty magical. But most people who adopt this way of eating (just because) feel better right away because they stop eating pastries, cookies, pies, cakes, white bread and other refined flour products and replace those nutritionally empty foods with fresh veggies, whole grains, fruits, nuts, seeds and good fats. It has less to do with eliminating gluten and more to do with ridding our diets of processed white flour and sugar…and eating real food.


Anybody who begins to eat more veggies and fruits and eschews processed food is going to feel better…fast!


The gluten-free diet, in its purest sense, was designed as treatment for people with celiac disease or a wheat allergy or intolerance. It was not designed as a weight loss tool. I doubt the intent was to create the social contagion it has become, spawning processed food products that can steal your health as quickly as any other junk food.


Let’s take a look at some of the products out there catering to the gluten-free consumer and see what’s healthy for us what isn’t.


Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are gluten-free. So is most soda. Snickers Bars are gluten-free. Almond Joy candies are gluten-free.  Even Cheeto’s are gluten-free. There are packaged gluten-free snacks from the natural food industry that are not necessarily a key to vitality; they just don’t contain gluten.


And then there are the mixes designed to make an authentic-tasting brownie, chocolate chip cookies or loaf of bread. Most of them are laden with sugar, gums and highly processed flours so that a gluten-free product can simulate a familiar food we used to love when we were gluten eaters.


The problem is bigger than gluten. We all know what to eat to create wellness. We know that whole grains (gluten-free or not), seasonal vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, seasonal fruits and good quality fats are the keystones to building our health.


We resist change and we want what we want. So we give ourselves over to manufacturers, both natural and conventional to create foods we know and love but can’t eat anymore. And so the market is flooded with versions of lasagna to burgers, beer to hot dogs that are natural, gluten-free, lite or made to be in some way healthier than the original.


We try to create change without change.


I’ll tell you a story. I was asked to judge a Philly Vegan Cheesesteak competition. Yes, you heard right, a vegan cheesesteak competition. One of my fellow judges was my dear friend and owner of Pat’s Steaks in Philadelphia, Frank Olivieri. The contestants were charged with making the most authentic cheesesteak without any cheese or steak. As we sat there with various versions of a vegan cheesesteak in front of us, I leaned into Frank and whispered, “I’ve never had a cheesesteak. What am I looking for it to taste like?” Frank laughed and replied, “Oily, salty and completely unhealthy.”


After the competition ended and the winner took his victory lap around the restaurant, the judges were asked to comment on the event and engage with the crowd. Frank said he had a question. He asked why we were doing this. As vegans, why did we want to create something that tasted meaty? Why did we want to emulate a cheesesteak? A quite insightful inquiry if I do say so.


If you walk through any natural foods store you will shelves lined with products designed to simulate their less healthy counterparts, from cheesecake to pizza to dry cereal to pot pies and salad dressings. You will find ‘healthy’ versions of your favorite candy bars and cookies; natural sodas and hot dogs.


Frank’s simple insight got me thinking. Is this what Mother Nature intended for us? Are these the healthiest products we can consume? What is it about modern humanity that we have to disguise healthy, nutritionally dense ingredients as something less healthy?


We have cookbooks dedicated to ideas like hiding pureed cauliflower or zucchini in brownies to increase the chance that your family will eat veggies, even if they are buried in chocolate, sugar and white flour (sort of negating the whole idea of eating veggies, doncha’ think?).


I’ve been known to create some of those dishes myself…vegan sausage and peppers, tofu cheesecake, seitan cheesesteak (yikes!), veggie burgers and tofu lasagna. They are fun and delicious. I make them for special, social occasions. 


But here’s the thing that my friend, Frank made me think about. In order to change our health, we need to change the way we think about food. If we move from burgers and fries to veggies burgers and sweet potato fries; from milkshakes to smoothies; from pizza to pizza with vegan cheese; have we changed our thinking??? In order to transform our health, gluten-free or not, we need to change how we think about food; what food is and what it means to us.


Am I suggesting we take the fun out of eating? Nope. But there’s plenty of sensual, delicious, fulfilling, satisfying foods to be cooked in their natural state. Quinoa as Mother Nature intended (not flaked and turned into a corn flake substitute) is amazingly yummy.


The same goes for gluten-free eating. Gluten-free processed foods are simply a new extension to that segment of the market. When someone must eschew gluten for health reasons, is turning to gluten-free brownie mix or chocolate-covered gluten-free pretzels the way to wellness?


Whole, unprocessed foods are abundant in our lives and are very often gluten-free. Quinoa, amaranth, brown rice, millet, corn and corn meal, grits, tofu, tempeh and beans. Fruit is gluten-free as are nuts and seeds and a host of healthy sweeteners like coconut sugar, maple syrup and brown rice syrup (in most cases). And if you’re not eating a plant-based diet, your world includes animal foods which are gluten-free.


Living a whole, healthy life involves change. Soda, cookies, pizza, brownies are all quite yummy and we love them. They are sweet and fun. But they have become staples of our modern diet. They have become the foods of our pantries. And the truth is that convenience or processed foods are not the foundations upon which we will build our health.


Look. I bake and sell cookies as a part of my brand. Sure, they’re healthy and are made with organic ingredients: whole grain flours, complex sugar sweeteners and fair trade chocolate. They are delicious and decadent and gorgeous. But should they be staples of our diet? As much as every pastry-making cell in my body wants to scream yes, the reality is no way, baby. They are treats to enjoy on occasion.


With so many foods to choose from in the plant kingdom alone, we are fools to fall victim to processed junk masquerading as healthy, gluten-free or not:


Beans, seeds and nuts in their natural, unprocessed form

Fruits and vegetables





Corn and cornmeal


Gluten-free flours (rice, soy, corn, potato, bean)


Hominy (corn)











You get the idea. To list all the options available would be to create a blog that goes on for days.


In the end, choosing health is not about whether you eat gluten or not (celiac disease notwithstanding). It’s about choosing to eat food that serves the purpose of your life. It’s about acting like a grown up (for just a minute) and eating as though all life matters. I don’t write this to offend, judge or indict (except some of the manufacturers). I want us all to think and consider our choices.


One last thing…just to tease you into coming back every day…we will be posting a blog and recipes dedicated to sweet treats…made from scratch, ridiculously easy and gluten-free…so stay tuned for a yummy week.