Are You Still Getting Important Vitamins and Minerals on a Gluten Free Diet?
What Is Gluten and How Does It Affect My Body?
Gluten is a large, cumbersome protein that our bodies cannot digest completely. This leads to irritation of our intestinal lining which causes inflammation, and inflammation in the digestive tract leads to an upset stomach.
Limiting gluten could help reduce these symptoms allowing you to experience improved exercise performance and overall well-being. But it can backfire too, because gluten-free doesn’t mean fat-free or calorie-free.
It’s also key not to rely on processed gluten-free foods that may be high in calories, sugar, saturated fat, and sodium and low in nutrients, such as gluten-free cookies, chips, and other snack foods. Often, these foods are made with processed unfortified rice, tapioca, corn, or potato flours.
Without gluten to bind food together, food manufacturers often use more fat and sugar to make the product more palatable.
Gluten-free diets have become extremely popular in the last decade among people with gluten sensitivity or intolerance, as well as, people simply trying to fuel their bodies with the healthiest ingredients. Gluten-free diets exclude all foods that contain gluten. But you do have to watch people who eat gluten-free tend to be deficient in a few vitamins and minerals, and their daily intakes of others may not quite meet recommendations, in part because gluten-free processed foods often aren’t supplemented with extra nutrients.
What Are Nutrients?
According to the dictionary, the official nutrients definition is “a substance that provides nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life.”
This encompasses the broad spectrum of micro nutrients, fatty acids, amino acids and other substances that your body needs to function, survive and thrive. Most of these are obtained through the things you eat, drink or supplement in your diet. However, this nutrients definition doesn’t differentiate between essential and nonessential nutrients.
While there are thousands of specific nutrients, each with its own unique benefits and functions, there are a few specific nutrients that you should be especially mindful about incorporating into your day.
The Nutritional Effects of Going Gluten-Free
Gluten-free doesn’t necessarily equal healthy, especially when people yank vitamin-enriched and wholegrain foods from their diets and replace them with gluten free brownies.
With almost every news story about the gluten-free diet, we hear dire warnings about the risks of nutritional deficiencies. While there are certainly valid reasons for this, the good news is that it’s absolutely possible to eat a healthy, balanced gluten-free diet and fill in any nutrient gaps with a little planning.
A gluten free diet is essentially a diet that removes all foods containing or contaminated with gluten. However, since gluten-containing whole grains contain fiber and nutrients including B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folate and iron, it’s important to make up for these missing nutrients.
If you’re determined to go gluten free, it’s important to know that it can set you up for some nutritional deficiencies.
So, what can you do about this? Obviously, you can take supplements—and if you’re quite deficient in certain nutrients, your doctor may recommend you do so. Since mega-doses of many vitamins can have negative effects, it goes without saying that you should check with your doctor—and potentially undergo some testing to determine your actual nutrient levels—before beginning a major supplement regimen.
But if you like the idea of getting as many of your nutrients from your food as possible, then here’s a blueprint to help you target foods containing high levels of the particular vitamin and mineral you may be lacking. This may not eliminate the need for you to take supplements, especially if you’re just diagnosed (you’ll need to talk to your doctor about that), but it certainly can help. However, eating nutrient-rich foods—especially those that are rich in the specific nutrients you may be lacking—may help you correct deficiencies, plus it may aid your general health.
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. 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.
Iron is essential because it binds oxygen and transports it through the body. With low iron levels, people may experience fatigue, weakness, irritability, headaches or difficulty concentrating. Therefore, people with celiac disease need to be more careful than average to get enough iron, either through their diets or through supplements. People who don’t have celiac but who are following the gluten-free diet also need to be careful.
Known as “the sunshine vitamin” because your skin produces it in response to sunlight, vitamin D also can be found in fortified dairy and conventional cereal products — and if you’re eating gluten-free (and especially dairy-free, too), you may not get enough. Recent studies have shown that people with celiac disease are especially prone to vitamin D deficiencies.
Calcium is best known for promoting bone health, but it also plays a role in blood clotting, muscle contractions and nerve function, too.
Getting adequate calcium can be tricky. The damage due to celiac disease affects calcium absorption, so many have been absorbing it poorly for years before diagnosis. To add to the difficulty, many people with recently diagnosed celiac disease are at least temporarily lactose intolerant. Lactose is the sugar found in milk products, and the enzyme that digests it is frequently missing until the small intestine starts healing.
Fortunately, a range of other foods contain calcium, such as sardines, firm tofu, teff, black-eyed peas and some greens, like collards, turnip greens or kale. A wide variety of “milks” are calcium fortified, such as almond, rice, soy and hemp, and there are many fortified fruit or vegetable juice blends, too. Not all milk substitutes and juices have added calcium, so check labels carefully.
Like vitamin D, calcium is found in dairy products—and that doesn’t do you a whole lot of good if you’re avoiding dairy due to lactose intolerance or an additional food sensitivity. So again, like vitamin D, it’s no wonder that studies show people with celiac disease don’t get the recommended levels of calcium in their diets. It could pay off to up the calcium quotient in your daily diet.
The eight B vitamins are essential to the production of red blood cells, heart and nerve function, and for a healthy pregnancy.
Fortified breads and cereals have become a major source of B vitamins in the United States. Although breads made with white rice, tapioca, and other gluten-free flours are becoming more common, they are generally not fortified with vitamins. This can be a problem for anyone, but it’s especially worrisome for women who are pregnant or may become pregnant. They need vitamin B , more commonly known as folate or folic acid, to prevent birth defects. Taking a gluten-free multivitamin-multimineral supplement is a good idea for anyone trying to avoid gluten.
The good news is that more gluten-free companies are beginning to voluntarily enrich products and are using more healthy gluten-free whole grains.
You also need vitamin B6 to help you fight off infections, maintain normal nerve function, and carry oxygen throughout your body. You also need it to keep your blood sugar within normal limits. Unfortunately, studies have shown that many people with celiac disease and following the gluten-free diet are low in vitamin B6.
What To Do
Before going out and gulping down the biggest bottle of vitamins on the shelf, it’s important to remember that everyone has different needs. While too little Vitamin D is harmful, too much can be dangerous. Taking a gluten-free multivitamin and a calcium supplement with Vitamin D is wise for almost all anyone with celiac disease. It’s also essential to get tested for nutrition deficiencies by a physician. If there is a real deficiency, higher doses of supplements and ongoing monitoring is necessary.
Following a gluten-free diet may also potentially cause a decrease in the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut (Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus), which can negatively impact the immune system.
If you plan to go gluten free, select more fruits, vegetables, and lean meat, and more naturally gluten-free grains like brown rice, quinoa, and buckwheat, rather than just buying prepackaged products labeled “gluten free”.
Remember, just because a label says that a product is “gluten free”, doesn’t mean that it’s healthier! Please read the labels carefully to ensure you are fueling your body properly.