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Grain-free diets miss out on several benefits

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Grains provide dietary benefits.

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PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Grains provide dietary benefits.

Each new year ushers in new nutrition trends, and 2014 is no exception.

A recent survey of 500 registered dietitians in the United States underscores the point. It found more than half of respondents believed wheat- or grain-free diets would be the No. 1 nutrition trend of the next 12 months.

It's easy to see why.

Wheat-free diets, which generally encourage people to abstain from eating products made from grain, such as bread, pasta and cereal, have generated a lot of media attention of late.

Every once in awhile, a celebrity or diet-book author will come forward to proclaim that eliminating wheat from your diet will increase energy, help you feel better and is the secret to fast and easy weight loss.

In the past, celebrities such as Gwenyth Paltrow and Oprah Winfrey have come forward to promote wheat- and gluten-free diets. In addition, two books extolling the virtues of going wheat-free -- Wheat Belly, by Dr. William Davis, and Grain Brain, by Dr. David Perlmutter -- have become big sellers.

Some people do have legitimate medical reasons for eliminating wheat from their diet. People who have been diagnosed with a wheat allergy need to eliminate wheat from their diets to prevent allergic reactions. People with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity can see improvements in their health by eliminating foods containing gluten, such as wheat, barley, rye and the foods that contain these ingredients.

But promoting a grain-free or wheat-free diet for the general population is another matter. First and foremost, not all the claims made by proponents of wheat-free diets are supported by evidence.

And while it is true that people who follow these diets will often see rapid weight loss, partly because the reduction or elimination of grain products reduces their intake of carbohydrates, that's not the whole story.

The fact is any weight-loss diet, especially one based on low carbs, will cause people to lose weight in the short term. But research also shows many people are unable to maintain these restrictive diets over the long haul. When they resume their old eating habits, they often regain the weight they lost and perhaps gain even more.

Wheat-free diets also cause weight loss because followers stop eating unhealthy grain-based foods such as cookies, cake and snack foods, resulting in lower consumption of sugar, fat and calories.

But the big problem with grain-free or wheat-free diets is they may not meet your nutritional needs.

It is important to remember the carbohydrates in grain-based products are converted by the body into glucose, which provides energy to the brain and supports other bodily functions. Diets that eliminate wheat and other grains can also be low in fibre and other vitamins and minerals such as folic acid and magnesium -- all important nutrients for good health. One study found the average gluten-free diet contains only six grams of fibre, well below the Institute of Medicine's recommendation of 21 to 38 grams of fibre per day. The fibre in whole grains, including whole wheat, is important for bowel regularity, may protect against colon cancer, contributes to a feeling of fullness and could lower cholesterol and help regulate blood sugars.

The bottom line: The best diet is not a passing fad. It's one you can stick to for life. A balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products or their alternatives, lean protein sources and the occasional treat or two will meet your nutritional requirements and help keep you healthy over time. And it will never go out of style.

Kerri Casper is a public health dietitian working in the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's Access River East office.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 17, 2014 A17

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