Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Many Americans believe that eliminating gluten is healthier and that it helps with weight loss, skin conditions, inflammation and attention deficit disorder. The trouble is there’s little evidence that a gluten-free diet has any health benefits for most people. People who need to avoid gluten are those individuals with celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that causes intestinal inflammation and damage when gluten is eaten and those individuals who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) that can cause gastrointestinal symptoms in response to gluten. These two conditions combined affect about 7 percent of Americans. However, about a third of Americans eat a gluten-free diet.

For people without celiac or NCGS there is not much to recommend a gluten-free diet. In 2017, in the “British Medical Journal,” Drs. B. Lebwohl and P.H.R. Green found no connection between eating gluten and an increased risk of heart disease. In fact, giving up gluten may actually be harmful as the same study showed those who chose to eat a gluten-free diet were more likely to eat fewer whole-grains depriving themselves of the health benefits of whole-grains.

Another downside is that gluten-free foods can be gummy and unpalatable so manufacturers often add sodium, sugar and fat to overcome the taste problem, which adds calories. Another downside with the gluten-free diet is that it has been shown that people on this diet had up to twice the amount of arsenic and 70 percent more mercury is their system than people who were not on the diet. That is because gluten-free cereals, crackers and pastas are often made with rice flour. Food safety experts have found that rice and rice-based products can have worrying amounts of arsenic.

What to do? Eat whole-grain. Whole-grain is the entire grain kernel, the bran, endosperm and germ. Refined grains such as white flour and white rice only have the endosperm and the good stuff is in the bran and the germ such as antioxidants and B vitamins, fiber, magnesium and other nutrients. Eating whole grains has shown again and again to help protect against cancer and heart disease.

Five healthy whole grains that are gluten-free are as follows: Amaranth, which is served with fruits and nuts as a hot cereal or with thyme or other herbs as a side dish; Freekeh a roasted young green wheat that can be used in any recipe instead of rice: Millet, which can be added to salads or soups; Quinoa can be used as a base for chili or soups or as an side dish; and Teff is a tiny grain that can be used instead of rice.

To eat these healthy whole-grains you will need to experiment and with the help of the internet many easy and nutritious recipes can be found and added to your family’s diet. Eat well and be healthy.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.

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