Gluten-Free? Don’t Let Sugar Derail Your Diet

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As gluten-free eating becomes more and more popular, you might be wondering if you should go gluten-free. The greater availability of gluten-free products has made the transition seem a little less daunting for those of us who don’t want to forgo that morning bagel or bowl of cereal. While I believe that everyone can benefit from giving up gluten, many people who rely on gluten-free packaged foods to make that change don’t feel better at all, and may actually feel worse. The culprit in this case isn’t what was taken out, but what was added back in: refined grains and sugar.

Whenever an ingredient is removed from a food, it’s often replaced with another ingredient for stability, shelf life or texture purposes. For example, sugar-free foods contain sugar alcohols, and fat-free foods are often produced with man-made fats and extra sugar. Gluten-free foods are no exception to this rule, as they’re often laden with extra sugar. Not to mention, gluten-free foods usually contain other nutrient-poor refined flours that your body treats just like refined sugar.

If you recently went gluten-free but aren’t seeing a resolution of your symptoms, the sugar content of gluten-free processed foods could be derailing your efforts for a number of reasons:

1. Too much sugar contributes to insulin resistance and weight gain.

Insulin has two big jobs in your body: It tells fat cells to store fat, and it pulls sugar into cells to be used as energy. If you eat a high-sugar diet and your blood sugar is constantly elevated, your body stops seeing this as a signal to pull sugar out of your bloodstream and into your cells. As a consequence, the insulin will stay in your blood, where it will continue to signal your fat cells to store the excess energy. Your cells that would use the sugar for energy are now “starving” and signal your liver to release more glucose, pushing your blood sugar even higher. Gluten-free products that contain sugar to make up for missing flavor and bulk aren’t giving you the real, sustained energy you need and will contribute to this cycle of weight gain and insulin resistance.

2. Sugar affects your hormones.

We’ve all experienced a sugar high and sugar crash, that familiar feeling of eating something sugary, getting a burst of energy and then finding it hard to even hold your head up or keep your eyes open half an hour later. If this is a common pattern for you, it could be the high sugar content of your diet. When it comes to gluten-free products, rice flour is most commonly used, which increases blood sugar more than wheat and leads to a bigger spike and subsequent crash.

3. Excessive sugar can feed gut infections like Candida and SIBO.

I believe that a healthy gut is essential to a healthy body, and a healthy microbiome is at the heart of it all. Your microbiome includes the flora that naturally live within your intestinal tract, including bacteria and yeast. They aid with digestion and nutrient absorption, but when either overgrows they can change how food is broken down in your gut and cause bloating.

Sugar tends to encourage overgrowth of certain bacteria and yeast that live in your gut, so if you’re relying on processed foods full of refined carbohydrates–even gluten-free grains–you’re encouraging unbalanced growth.

4. Sugar causes inflammation in the body.

High sugar intake has been found to cause inflammation in the body released both by fat cells and by cells that line the blood vessels in response to high levels of sugar. By substituting one inflammatory substance (gluten) with another (sugar), you’re keeping inflammatory hormones constantly high, something that contributes to diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease.

While sugar plays an important role in your body, remember that excess sugar can cause big problems. If you’ve made the choice to get healthy and go gluten-free, don’t rely on gluten free products. Stick to whole, organic fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds and organic animal products like organic, grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chicken. Give your body the real nutrients it needs and leave the gluten-free cookies and bagels on the shelf.