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Go With the Grain: Gluten-Free Diets Linked to Type 2 Diabetes

by Marguerite Darlington
March 16, 2017 | Health

We all want to be our best selves, and sometimes the pathway to self improvement is a change in diet. But how do you choose? There's the Mediterranean diet, the Atkins diet, Paleo (which is technically a lifestyle) and more. But new research presented at a 2017 American Heart Association meeting casts doubt on the health benefits of one popular diet: gluten-free.

"Gluten-free diets have become popular because they have been promoted as a way to lose weight," said Angela Murad, a registered dietitian nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program

Gluten-Free Diets rewire PBS

Is a gluten-free diet the best way to lose weight? Probably not. In fact, researchers at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts found that eating more gluten may lower a person's risk of Type 2 Diabetes.

What is gluten anyway?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley that gives bread and other baked goods elasticity during baking and a chewy texture when finished (Mmmm... bagels). A gluten-free diet is simply one that eliminates grains containing the protein gluten, according to Murad.

"In individuals with celiac disease, gluten causes inflammation in the small intestines," Murad said. "Only about 1 percent of the U.S. population suffers from the disease."

Despite the small percentage of the population that can't tolerate gluten due to Celiac disease, now one in five people in the U.S. has adopted a gluten-free diet for health reasons, according to WebMD.

What are the health benefits of a gluten-free diet? Aside from weight-loss goals, Murad said that the primary benefit of a gluten-free diet is relief from symptoms of celiac disease.

But the researchers wanted to know if there was more to it. “We wanted to determine if gluten consumption will affect health in people with no apparent medical reasons to avoid gluten,” said Geng Zong, Ph.D., a research fellow at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts.

Gluten-Free Diets rewire PBS

Gluten just might be good for you

It's been portrayed as a dietary villain in recent years, but, despite the negative associations it has today, gluten has health benefits, including nutrients such as vitamins, mineral and fiber.

“Gluten-free foods often have less dietary fiber and other micronutrients, making them less nutritious and they also tend to cost more," said Zong. "People without Celiac disease may reconsider limiting their gluten intake for chronic disease prevention, especially for diabetes.”

In the Harvard study, which began in 1984 and concluded in 2013, researchers found that participants who ate the most gluten had lower Type 2 diabetes risk during thirty years of follow-up—a 13 percent reduction in risk, in fact. (Full disclosure: the participants who ate less gluten also tended to eat less cereal fiber, a known protective factor for Type 2 diabetes development. Also, the majority of the study was completed before gluten-free diets became popular.)

What's the best way to eat better?

Gluten-Free Diets rewire PBS

So, if eating gluten-free increases your risk of developing diabetes and low-carb diets can cause B.O. (gross), what's the best way to eat healthy?

"The best kind of diet to follow is one that includes a variety of foods with all food groups," Murad said. "The Mediterranean diet is a great example, similar to the Mayo Clinic Healthy Weight Pyramid, focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources."

The best way to keep that diet balanced, according to Murad, is to image that everything you eat fits on one plate. If that were true, here's how your plate would look:

Half would be vegetables. They're rich in nutrients, fiber, water and antioxidants. Foods high in fiber can help you feel satisfied longer. You can also eat a lot more of them because they are lower in calories.

One quarter would be whole grains, which contain fiber and antioxidants. 

Protein should make up the other quarter. Focus on lean sources like chicken or turkey breast, fish or lean beef—and plant proteins such as beans, lentils or soy.

Add in heart healthy fats including nuts, seeds and olive oil sparingly. 

Sweets should be considered a treat—and consumed in small portions.

The bottom line? Eat your vegetables. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Marguerite Darlington
Marguerite Darlington has worked in digital marketing and media since 1999, supporting brands like The New York Times, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Wisconsin School of Business, Jessica Simpson, ALDO Shoes and various independent entertainment properties. She joined Twin Cities Public Television as Rewire Director in June 2016.
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