Featured in Living Without Magazine - October / November 2009
Are you eating gluten free? If so, you may not be getting all the nutrients you need. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston examined the eating patterns of 119 study participants with celiac disease and discovered that their gluten-free diet was consistently deficient in iron, B vitamins, calcium and vitamin D—and grossly lacking in fiber.
Why is the gluten-free diet so vulnerable to nutritional insufficiency? Much of the blame lies in the processed foods we eat. Many gluten-free commercial products contain alternative grains that have been refined and stripped of essential nutrients, particularly the fiber.
Fiber is an indigestible component of plant cells. It's critical to healthy bowel function, promoting regularity and preventing constipation, hemorrhoids and colon cancer. It also offers other important benefits, such as managing body weight, decreasing cholesterol levels and aiding in the prevention of heart disease and diabetes.
The average person on a gluten-containing diet consumes 12 to 17 grams of fiber a day—not close to the 35-gram daily amount that’s ideal for adults. For children, the right dose of fiber is age plus five. That means, for example, an 8-year-old child needs 13 grams daily. If you and your family consume primarily refined gluten-free grains like tapioca flour, white rice flour, cornstarch and potato starch, you’re probably getting considerably less than the ideal amount of fiber.
Eating better, feeling better
It’s easy enough to increase your fiber intake. Cut back on processed products and ramp up your consumption of fiber-rich foods, like unrefined grains, whole fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes. These last two items are not only fiber super-stars, they’re inexpensive and make tasty meat replacements.
According to a 2008 study in Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology, the nutrient and fiber content of the gluten-free diet was significantly improved with the simple addition of teff, a tiny Ethiopian grain. Another study, published this year in International Journal of Food Science, reported that the nutrient count of gluten-free baked goods increased notably when they were supplemented with linseed (flax), amaranth and buckwheat. Not only was the fiber content improved, so were levels of protein, essential fatty acids, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese, zinc and copper. Fortunately, these and other delicious, nutritious gluten-free grains are becoming more widely available in neighborhood supermarkets.
Popular fiber supplements like Citrucel and Metamucil contain surprisingly low levels of fiber—only about 3 grams a serving. In contrast, a cup of cooked amaranth or lentils provides about 18 grams of fiber, plus a rich profile of other vital nutrients you won’t get from a commercial fiber wafer.
If you need help boosting your fiber, try an all-natural supplement like acacia fiber. Most of my patients with sensitive digestive tracts do well with this tasteless, odorless, textureless substance that’s naturally gluten free. Often better tolerated than psyllium husks (another all-natural supplement), acacia fiber doesn’t contain the sweeteners, colorings or additives found in the popular commercial brands.
Once you resolve to focus on fiber, increase your consumption slowly or you can expect some gas and bloating as your body adjusts. These symptoms are temporary. In the long run, improving the fiber content in your daily diet will bring you healthy rewards. The effort is more than worth it. LW
Christine Doherty, ND, is a licensed naturopathic doctor who specializes in food allergies and celiac disease. Consult your health care practitioner before taking supplements.
Reprinted with permission from Living Without Magazine