Gluten is Not a Food Group

Gluten isn't a food group- and why you might not want to eat it

One of my more controversial posts is how grains are killing you slowly and despite the continually emerging evidence about the potential problems associated with consumption of modern grains, many people are still unsure.

While I personally know that I feel better when I don’t eat grains (especially gluten) and that my kids do better without them, I’m not in the business of trying to force a particular diet on anyone. At the same time, I wanted to address one common objection I get, especially from people in the nutrition field- (I’ve heard this twice this week):

“Unless you have Celiac disease, it is dangerous to avoid an entire food group and this puts you at risk for nutrient deficiencies.”

To clarify:

Gluten is not a Food Group!

Though grains did form the base of the outdated “food pyramid,” even the food pyramid did not define gluten as a “food group” by itself. Additionally, there are not any nutrients in gluten that can’t be found in higher amounts in other foods.

What exactly is gluten? (definition from Chris Kresser):

“Wheat contains several different classes of proteins. Gliadins and glutenins are the two main components of the gluten fraction of the wheat seed. (They’re essential for giving bread the ability to rise properly during baking.) Within the gliadin class, there are four different epitopes (i.e. types): alpha-, beta-, gamma- and omega-gliadin. Wheat also contains agglutinins (proteins that bind to sugar) and prodynorphins (proteins involved with cellular communication). Once wheat is consumed, enzymes in the digestive tract called tissue transglutaminases (tTG) help to break down the wheat compound. In this process, additional proteins are formed, including deamidated gliadin and gliadorphins (aka gluteomorphins).”

In other words,  gluten is a small part of a small group of foods, and it doesn’t provide any specific health advantages by itself.

Gluten is found in grains including wheat, rye and barley (as well as some others). Whole grains, including those with gluten, are often considered part of a healthy diet even though the same nutrients found in whole grains can be found in equal or larger amounts in foods like vegetables, fruits, and meat or organ meat. It frustrates me to hear things like this from the Scientific American:

“For most other people, a gluten-free diet won’t provide a benefit, said Katherine Tallmadge, a dietitian and the author of “Diet Simple” . What’s more, people who unnecessarily shun gluten may do so at the expense of their health, Tallmadge said.

That’s because whole grains, which contain gluten, are a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals, Tallmadge said. Gluten-free products are often made with refined grains, and are low in nutrients.”

You know what else is a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals? Vegetables.

You know what also has MORE fiber, vitamins and minerals? Vegetables.

You know what also doesn’t have the potential to cause gut damage (in most cases)? Vegetables.

If we are feeling really brave, we can even add in foods like liver, broth, fermented vegetables and eggs (if tolerated) and blow the nutrition profile of grains completely out of the water.

Do We Need Grains?

Let’s break down the reasons that we are often told that we need grains: fiber, vitamins and minerals. Do grains really have spectacular amounts of these substances that are hard to find elsewhere?

Fiber

I think Mark Sisson summed this up perfectly in this post when responding to the assertion that “You need the fiber!”:

“Okay, for one: no, I don’t. If you’re referring to its oft-touted ability to move things along in the inner sanctum, fiber has some unintended consequences. A few years back, scientists found that high-fiber foods “bang up against the cells lining the gastrointestinal tract, rupturing their outer covering” which “increases the level of lubricating mucus.” Err, that sounds positively awful. Banging and tearing? Rupturing? These are not the words I like to hear. But wait! The study’s authors say, “It’s a good thing.” Fantastic! So when all those sticks and twigs rub up against my fleshy interior and literally rupture my intestinal lining, I’ve got nothing to worry about. It’s all part of the plan, right?

Somehow, I’m not convinced that a massive daily infusion of insoluble grain fiber is all that essential. And that “lubricating mucus” sounds an awful like the mucus people with irritable bowel syndrome complain about. From personal experience I can tell you that once I completed my exodus from grains, the IBS completely stopped. If you’re not yet convinced on the fiber issue I’ll refer you to Konstantin Monastyrsky’s Fiber Menace. Anyway, there’s plenty of fiber in the vegetables and fruit I eat.”

In other words- you can get fiber from fruits and vegetables without the potential harm to your digestive system.

Vitamins and Minerals

Grains are often suggested for their vitamin and mineral content, specifically for B-vitamins and Magnesium. Just as with fiber, thees things can be easily found in other foods. Health Habits takes on the assertion that grains are a great source of these nutrients:

“Hmmmm…why don’t we take a look at the nutrition info again and see if that’s true.

  • Thiamin … And the winner is fruits, vegetables and once again…bran.
  • Riboflavin … veggies win again
  • Niacin … and again
  • Folate … and again
  • Iron … and again
  • Magnesium … and again
  • Selenium …and last but not least, it’s a tie between veggies and grains!!!

So, except for the fine showing in the selenium category…

Fruits & vegetables are the best source of vitamins and minerals.

The Bottom Line

Gluten is not a food group.

Grains do contain some nutrients, but these nutrients can be found in larger amounts in fruits, vegetables and meats/fats.

I will agree with many nutritionists that going gluten free isn’t going to do much good if you just replace the gluten with gluten free processed foods. These gluten free processed alternatives often have more sugar and chemical substances to balance out the lack of gluten.

If, however, you replace the gluten containing foods (and all grains) with vegetables, fruits, fermented probiotic-rich foods, homemade broths, organ meats and humanely raised animal meats, you will not be missing out on vitamins and minerals. In fact, according to the latest statistics I’ve seen for food consumption in the US, you’ll be head and shoulders above the rest of the population on vitamin and mineral intake.

Since grains are often fortified with additional nutrients, it is important to make sure that you are eating a varied and nutrient rich diet when you go grain free. I’ve also found that rubbing magnesium oil (here is the recipe) on my feet at night is an easier way to absorb magnesium and replace the magnesium that is often added to grains.

Additional Reading

Chris Kresser on the Gluten Thyroid Connection

Mark Sisson on Fiber, Vitamins and Minerals

Chris Kresser on Toxins in Grains

SCD Lifestyle on the Problems with Gluten Free  Food

Sarah Ballantyne on Gluten Cross Sensitivity

The Paleo Parents on Gluten Sensitivity and Gall Bladder Disease 

Where do you stand on the gluten/grain issue? Share below!

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