Increasing public awareness around the negative effects of consuming gluten has given rise to a billion dollar industry. Whether a result of our own education, or simply good marketing, in our quest to be healthier, Americans are buying billions of dollars of food labeled gluten-free each year. (1) Unfortunately, the assumption that products labeled gluten-free are automatically healthier is a fallacy. Because most gluten-free products rely heavily on high-glycemic starchy carbohydrates and added sugar, it trades one problem (gluten), for another (sugar), and can leave consumers of these products with hormonal imbalances and other health issues.
Many primal eaters are mindful that simply avoiding gluten isn’t the whole story when it comes to optimal health; there are other factors to consider, and sugar consumption is one of them. Sadly, the general public is not always aware: A recent survey of people who bought gluten-free foods found that 35 percent said they thought gluten-free products were generally healthier.1 Unfortunately, most “gluten-free” products contain added sugar and refined carbohydrates―together they create the perfect dietary storm. Highly addictive by design, sugar is leveraged by food companies to ensure repeat customers. Like clockwork, the more sugar one eats, the more they crave; thus a sugar addict is born.
Sugar and refined carbs feed nasty residents (think bacteria and yeast) living in the gut. (This problem is exasperated in the not-so-well-sealed guts of those with existing digestive issues, like Celiacs.) These nasties thrive on sugar, and their presence leaves their host feeling unwell. Each intake of excess sugar also deregulates hormones, particularly insulin and cortisol. The unchecked rise of these hormones leads to blood sugar crashes, leading to fatigue. This encourages the host to reach for another pick-me-up “gluten-free” cookie, restarting the viscous cycle. The cumulative effect of excess sugar intake is all but pretty and looks a lot like hormone derangement leading to real exhaustion, and other serious health problems.
Amy Myers, MD, a functional medicine doctor heading up the Austin UltraHealth Clinic, is a big proponent of getting her patients off gluten to treat autoimmune and leaky gut issues, but she’s no stranger to the pitfalls of patients choosing “gluten-free” products.
“Gluten-free products contain highly refined grains mixed with lots of sugar that adds to taste and makes up for missing bulk. The most common flour―rice―affects the blood sugar more than wheat, meaning you’ll see a bigger spike and subsequent crash,” warns Dr. Myers. “Blood sugar swings are a huge stressor on the adrenals and, subsequently, the thyroid which can definitely contribute to fatigue.”
“Dips in blood sugar stimulate cortisol in an effort to rebalance blood sugar. Depending on available cortisol and stored sugar, fight or flight chemicals can make the experience of low blood sugar feel like an anxiety attack,” agrees Kelly Brogan, MD, a New York City-based holistic physician and psychiatrist. “Deviations from natural cortisol rhythms result in limited conversion of thyroid hormone to its active form (with high cortisol) and limited cellular access of active hormone to cells (with low cortisol). These thyroid hormone changes (that can escape routine blood work) leave you suffering from weight gain, fogginess, constipation, and fatigue.”
Additionally, too much sugar in the diet has potentially dangerous consequences for the liver, the arteries, and the heart. A health report from Harvard Medical School notes that excessive fructose bogs down your liver which can eventually result in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. “In the early 1900s, the average American took in about 15 grams of fructose a day…today we average four or five times that amount…Virtually unknown before 1980, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease now affects up to 30% of adults in the United States.” This condition has also been linked with metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. (2)
I concur with the experts. After making the switch to “gluten-free” products in 2008, my cravings for high-glycemic carbs and sugar skyrocketed. One year later, I was suffering from candida and adrenal fatigue. My experience is not uncommon; the majority of clients who approach me with diagnoses of celiac and gluten sensitivity share a similar tale, and many in the gluten-free community will admit that sugar is their number one vice.
It’s clear that consuming “gluten-free” products―with no consideration of sugar intake―is not ideal. If you’re goal is optimal health, focus your gluten-free choices around real food and leave the rest of the junk at the grocery store. Instead of a pre-packaged “gluten free” cookie, try an apple, or better yet, homemade Apple Pie Pudding. Your health will thank you.