It seems you can’t walk down a grocery store aisle these days without seeing the words “gluten-free.” Pasta, bread, granola bars, yogurt—the list goes on.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and hybrids of these grains, like triticale. It’s what gives that stretchy texture to bread and other products. It’s also a product that can sicken people with celiac disease, gluten intolerance and wheat allergies. But many people without those diagnoses are also working to decrease gluten or eliminate it in their diet, often because they think it will make them lose weight or feel more energetic.
People with a wheat allergy should check with their doctor or healthcare provider to determine if a gluten-free diet is necessary and whether any other grains are allowed or should be avoided.
Maribet Rivera-Brute, a public health nutritionist with the Department of Public Health in San Bernardino County, CA., says that a gluten-free diet is not recommended for the general public. “If you have a certain condition then it will be beneficial for you, but if you’re not in that population, why would you want to follow the gluten-free diet?” she asks.
She says that eating a well-balanced diet that includes whole-grain wheat and other items with gluten is challenging enough for most people. To take items away, such as whole wheat or whole grain bread and pasta, makes it even more difficult to eat nutritiously.
“One of the concerns here is it’s hard enough for people to eat enough fruits and vegetables, which are gluten-free, then I would imagine how hard it would also be to follow a gluten-free diet with no wheat or flour,” she says.
In addition, many of the products that are being sold under the “gluten-free” label may give a false sense to consumers that because the item has no gluten, it’s also healthy. That isn’t necessarily true. Gluten-free foods can be loaded with nutrients that should be limited with a heart-healthy diet, such as sugar, salt, saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. It’s important, says Rivera-Brute, to read the label and know what you’re getting into.
While the American Heart Association does not have a formal position on the benefits of a gluten-free diet, the organization does recommend adding more heart-healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables and proteins, which are naturally gluten-free, into your diet. In doing so, you get the benefits of introducing more fiber into your meals through these typically more nutrient-rich foods. Higher fiber helps the body by reducing the risk for heart disease.
Rivera-Brute recommends keeping it simple. “When we talk about the gluten-free diet, try to make it as simple as possible. It can be frustrating for many people, thinking, ‘If I’m sensitive to gluten and wheat, what can I eat?’ Yes, you can just abide by the label that says gluten-free, but also you have fruits and vegetables, which are naturally going to be gluten-free, and you have corn, rice, potatoes and anything based on them.”
The following foods are usually naturally gluten-free and heart healthy (note: always read the labels to ensure there is no hidden gluten and that the items were made in a gluten-free facility with no gluten additives.).
Gluten-free foods (that are good for the heart)
- Beans (plain)
- Brown rice
- Milk (fat-free and low-fat—less than 1 percent)
- Olive oil and canola oil
- Peanut butter
- Potato flour
- Rice cakes
- Sweet potatoes
Try these heart-healthy and naturally gluten-free recipes from Go Red:
- Asparagus Salad with Lemon Garlic Dressing
- Carrot Soup with Corriander
- Eye-of-Round Roast au Jus
- Fish Fillets with Fresh Tomatoes
- Grilled Chicken & Vegetables
- Herbed Veggie Skillet
- Minted Sugar Snap Peas
- Rosemary Dijon Mustard
- Spinach Salad with Orange Vinaigrette
- Smashed Red Potatoes
Be sure to read all product labels to ensure items are gluten-free before eating.
Learn more about healthy living on Go Red.