Some of you are looking at the title of this post and might be saying, “Hey, that’s not a fair comparison. A gluten-free diet (GFD) is not a comprehensive diet like the paleo diet. The GFD simply eliminates gluten from your diet whereas a paleo diet has a specific template for macro and micronutrient consumption. You’re really comparing apples and oranges.”
Well, that’s kind of true but not wholly true.
Do you know what a PWAG is?
I didn’t until I read this Washington Post article.
PWAG is an acronym for “people without celiac disease avoiding gluten.”
Yes, dear readers, the mainstream medical community has categorized me and given me a special name.
I’m a PWAG. I have not been diagnosed with celiac disease (CD), but I’m GF.
The Mayo Clinic has even counted us. This past January, they reported that as of 2014 the number of PWAGs have tripled to approximately 3.1 million people.
At the same time, the incidence of CD has stayed the same.
The Mayo Clinic’s study didn’t give a reason for the rise in PWAGs.
However, the WaPo article quotes Benjamin Lebwohl, the director of clinical research at Columbia University’s Celiac Disease Center, who states that at least half of PWAGs have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). See here.
This is significant because at least some prominent CD researchers are starting to acknowledge that NCGS is a real medical condition that requires a GFD. See here.
While NCGS doesn’t cause the serious intestinal autoimmune damage associated with CD, it is capable of causing an intestinal and body-wide inflammatory immune response.
This is why people with NCGS must be on a GF diet.
However, is a GFD alone the best diet to deal with inflammation caused by gluten, wheat, or any other source?
Today, let’s examine the differences between a GFD and a GF paleo type diet and see why a GF paleo diet might be the better choice for dealing with CD, NCGS, and any other disease associated with inflammation.
I’ll do this by highlighting 5 key differences between a GFD and a paleo diet.
Some Preliminary Remarks on a Paleo-Type Diet and a GFD
Loren Cordain, one of the foremost proponents of the paleo diet, has described it as being “based upon everyday, modern foods that mimic the food groups of our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors.”
Let me make one thing clear from the outset. Since I’m a creationist, I don’t believe that an appeal to evolutionary theory is acceptable scientific evidence for why the paleo diet works.
Using theory as evidence in order to prove another theory true is specious and not good science.
However, with that being said, I personally believe the scientific data proves the merits of the paleo diet.
I agree with Cordain, that the paleo diet can help you, “optimize your health, minimize your risk of chronic disease, and lose weight.”
Because I disagree with the so-called paleolithic origins upon which some base the efficacy of the diet I’d prefer calling the diet a paleo-type diet.
However, for ease of readability, I’ll refer to the diet as the paleo diet for the rest of this post.
Within paleo circles, there is also some intramural disagreement as to whether some dairy products (yogurt), potatoes, and legumes can be consumed in moderation or should be eliminated altogether.
I don’t believe these differences affect the overall intended effect of the diet.
What’s A GFD
As for a GFD, I think we’re pretty sure what that entails.
If you’re GF only, then you’ll remove only gluten from your diet regardless of the source.
5 Important Differences Between A Gluten Free Diet And A Paleo Diet
Okay, let’s get to the 5 differences between a paleo diet and a GFD and how they can affect your health.
1. Anti-nutrient Content
We all know what nutrients are. They are components in foods that we consume in order to survive and thrive.
More specifically, they are the three macronutrients (fats, proteins, and carbohydrates) along with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and water.
Unfortunately, today’s standard American diet (SAD) and other diets considered healthy such as the Mediterranean Diet contain large amounts of anti-nutrients.
Anti-nutrients are compounds in plant-derived foods that have the potential to harm human health.
Plant lectins are compounds that make up part of a plant’s defense mechanism against microorganisms and pests.
They are found in abundance in the seeds of legumes and grains.
The ingestion of lectins has been found to be especially problematic for the human digestive tract.
Research has shown that lectins are able to bind to epithelial cells along the intestinal lining and actually prevent their repair.
Here’s why this is a problem.
During digestion, some of the cells of your intestinal lining can become damaged by the simple mechanical processes of digesting food.
In order to maintain the integrity of the intestinal lining, your body must repair these cells as fast as possible.
However, lectins which are non-digestible can prevent your body from doing this.
Damaged gut epithelial cells that cannot be repaired might eventually cause increased intestinal permeability, a situation also known as a leaky gut.
In the presence of a leaky gut, proteins, viruses, bacteria, and bacterial products can pass into the lamina of the intestine and eventually the bloodstream.
This could result in inflammation, autoimmune disease and possibly other chronic diseases.
Some researchers also believe that lectins can interfere with nutrient digestion and absorption, stimulate shifts in the bacterial flora, and disrupt the immune state of the digestive tract. Of course, all of these factors could contribute to systemic disease.
Phytates are another type of plant anti-nutrient. They are commonly found in grains, legumes, and nuts.
Their function in plants is to bind minerals so that they can be stored and used later by seeds.
However, when humans consume phytates, the phytates can cause a decrease in mineral absorption by binding to calcium, magnesium, zinc and manganese.
Saponins are compounds found in many types of plant foods including legumes, nuts, potatoes (especially the skins), and pseudo-grains such as quinoa and amaranth.
Their function appears to be the protection of the plant from insects and microbes.
The name saponin is derived from the Latin word (sapo) for soap.
Because of their chemical design, saponins have a detergent-like ability to dissolve the cell membranes of predators.
Research has also shown that saponins can combine with and disrupt the lipid membrane of the mammalian digestive tract.
This can damage enterocytes (cells that line the gut), increasing the likelihood of leaky gut.
The next time you have a yearning for potato skins, especially if you have intestinal issues, consider this study.
Saponin damage is probably weak, but the risk could be cumulative when combined with damage from lectins and gluten.
Gluten is a mixture of proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. It might be the worst anti-nutrient of them all.
Celiacs are completely intolerant to gluten because of its ability to initiate an autoimmune response in the gut that can cause intestinal damage leading to malabsorption of nutrients and other potentially serious health problems.
Further, people who suffer from NCGS must also diligently avoid gluten.
Researchers have also demonstrated that gluten can be a direct cause of leaky gut.
Dr. Alessio Fasano and others have shown that gluten activates the protein zonulin which causes intestinal tight junctions between enterocytes to open up thus increasing intestinal permeability.
A GFD and anti-nutrients
A GFD solely seeks to eliminate gluten from any source.
It’s not generally concerned with eliminating other anti-nutrients which have the potential to cause intestinal inflammation and leaky gut.
A Paleo diet and anti-nutrients
Like a GFD, a paleo diet theoretically eliminates gluten from your diet because it eliminates grains.
However, it doesn’t seek to eliminate gluten meticulously from every hidden source as a strict GFD would.
Some paleo adherents question the consumption of white rice in a paleo diet.
White rice is a grain. However, some paleo adherents find it less problematic because its anti-nutrient content is significantly reduced by the removal of the husk, bran, and germ during processing.
However, because of its relatively high glycemic load, some people concerned with their carb intake or insulin response might shy away from it.
While it’s not possible to eliminate all anti-nutrients from your diet, a paleo diet does attempt to reduce them to more appropriate health levels.
2. Anti-Inflammatory Properties
When I first went on a GFD, I had been suffering for years with several chronic health issues (CFS, NCGS and adrenal fatigue).
While going GF was a good initial step in reducing the inflammation raging in my body, it was simply not enough.
What I needed to do was remove as many inflammatory foods as possible and add in anti-inflammatory ones.
For example, as we’ve seen, a GFD doesn’t eliminate anti-nutrients which could play a role in creating inflammation.
It also doesn’t explicitly eliminate foods like processed vegetable oils, refined sugar, HFCS, synthetic sweeteners, artificial additives, foods high in omega-6 fatty acids, and processed foods, all of which can be highly inflammatory.
A paleo diet attempts to eliminate these types of foods and increase the consumption of foods that contribute to the healing process.
These foods include antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits, fermented vegetables, pastured eggs, extra virgin olive oil, spices like turmeric and cinnamon, bone broth, foods high in omega-3 fatty acids like wild caught salmon, sardines, and herring, and meats from pasture raised animals.
Some of these foods might be included in a regular GFD, but the diet doesn’t emphasize the consumption of beneficial anti-inflammatory ingredients.
If you are healing from a chronic inflammatory disease, you will need these foods to increase healing.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, wasn’t wrong in the advice he gave us over 2000 years ago,
Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.
However, if you want to heal or prevent disease, it’s vitally important to consume the right kind of foods and eliminate the wrong ones.
3. The Effect of a GFD and A Paleo Diet on Intestinal Healing
Hippocrates was also said to have uttered these wise words concerning health,
All diseases begin in the gut.
Of course, this is not entirely true. Some diseases such as genetic diseases don’t originate in the gut.
However, many diseases such as autoimmune disease, poor immune health, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, cancer, mental health disorders, skin conditions, IBS and IBD can and do begin in the gut.
Therefore, it’s essential for any good diet to protect and enhance gut health as much as possible.
This means limiting the possibility of a leaky gut.
A GFD takes an important first step by eliminating gluten, one of the primary causes of a leaky gut.
It doesn’t however, as we have seen, eliminate other offenders such as anti-nutrients.
It also doesn’t limit foods that might be potentially harmful to the intestine such as refined grains (brown rice and corn).
Brown rice is packed with phytates and lectins. Corn has the potential to cross react as gluten in the intestine.
A GFD diet also doesn’t limit gums and thickeners found in many processed foods. See Chris Kresser’s excellent series on food additives here.
While many people with celiac disease will limit dairy products because of associated lactose intolerance a GFD doesn’t specifically eliminate dairy.
However, a paleo diet does generally limit high lactose-containing dairy products because of the possibility of intolerance.
A paleo diet with its reliance on whole foods seeks to eliminate foods that could possibly be detrimental to intestinal health and instead focuses on foods that are easy to digest.
The Gut Microbiota
Maintaining healthy gut microbiota is also a priority of the paleo diet.
Dysbiosis, a disruption in your gut microbiota, can lead to serious disease. See here.
In order to maintain a healthy microbiome, a paleo diet places an emphasis on consuming fermented vegetables like sauerkraut or kombucha.
If you have IBS, IBD, CD, NCGS, or an autoimmune disease like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, or MS, gut health (especially decreasing leaky gut and restoring intestinal microbiome) is vitally important. See here and here.
Ditching gluten is a good first step in your healing process but adopting a paleo diet might be what’s needed to take your health to the next level.
4. Nutrient Density
In order to survive and thrive, we not only need to consume macronutrients, we also need to consume adequate quantities of micronutrients.
Micronutrients consist of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that we get from plants (e.g. antioxidants).
Since not all foods have been created equal, they don’t all offer the same amount of micronutrients.
One way for you to identify the micronutrient quality of a food is by considering its nutrient density.
Nutrient density refers to the amount and variety of nutrients provided per calorie of food or the ratio of nutrients to calories (energy).
You may have heard the term empty calories. This refers to foods that may have a high caloric content but little nutrient value.
For example, white rice is exceptional at supplying carbohydrates and calories but is not a very nutrient dense food.
Eggs, on the other hand, have a high nutrient density, because they provide protein and many vitamins and minerals in proportion their calories.
Nutrient Density Rating
Since oatmeal has a score of 53, you would have to eat almost 4 bowls of oatmeal to equal the nutrient density of just one bowl of strawberries (182).
However, you would have to eat about 20 bowls of oatmeal to equal one bowl of kale (1000).
Obviously, if you’re trying to heal your body or if you want to prevent disease, you need all the nutrients you can get for the lowest calorie cost.
A paleo diet does this by placing an emphasis on high nutrient dense foods.
This includes foods such as low glycemic load fruits, low starch vegetables, nuts, berries, healthy oils (olive and coconut), lean sources of protein such as pastured meats, wild caught seafood, pastured eggs, bone broth, and fermented vegetables.
Unfortunately, a GFD doesn’t place an emphasis on consuming nutrient dense food.
Sure, some people may include some healing super foods into their diets, but a GFD only demands the removal of gluten.
Often a GFD simply mimics the SAD staple foods such as bread, pasta, pizza, and cookies that are made with GF ingredients that are the opposite of nutrient dense.
Criticism of The Paleo Diet
The paleo diet has not been without criticism. Let’s take a look.
Criticism 1: The paleo diet eliminates two food groups. Therefore, it’s nutrient deficient
Since the diet eliminates grains and legumes, critics say that the diet is nutrient deficient.
Paleo proponents respond by arguing that since the high phytate content in grains and legumes can impair the absorption of minerals, avoiding grains and legumes would increase mineral availability. See here and here.
Further, paleo diet proponents argue that the nutrient density of foods advocated on the paleo diet more than compensate for the nutrients lost from the elimination of grains.
Dr. Cordain has put together a chart showing the superior nutrient density of foods on a paleo diet as compared to the nutrient density of legumes and grains. See here.
Criticism 2: Since a paleo diet eliminates milk, your calcium and vitamin D intake might be deficient
To this criticism, paleo proponents answer this way.
First, since it’s possible that 70% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant, most people should avoid milk in general.
Secondly, they argue that calcium metabolism involves more than just calcium intake.
Many foods in the paleo diet actually increase the body’s ability to absorb calcium and thus create better calcium homeostasis.
Some proponents of the paleo diet also point out that calcium and magnesium work synergistically in our body.
Thus if our magnesium intake is high, our calcium needs will dramatically decrease.
Since the paleo diet is abundant in magnesium, calcium intake shouldn’t be an issue.
As to vitamin D, paleo adherents point out that you would need to drink six 8 oz. glasses (1,680 calories or approximately 75% of your daily caloric intake) of vitamin D-fortified milk to meet the USDA’s daily requirement of vitamin D.
Thus, they suggest that it would make more sense to take a vitamin D supplement or go for a walk in the sunshine.
5. Which is Better For Weight Loss – A Paleo Diet or a GFD?
When I first went GF, weight loss wasn’t an issue.
My primary concern was healing my body.
However, after initially going GF I subsequently lost a good amount of weight.
This was probably due to my decreased consumption of refined carbs.
Unfortunately, once I began to discover GF pasta, bread, and pizza, I quickly gained back the weight I lost plus another 15 pounds.
Now weight gain was a problem.
This is not to say that GF products made me over-weight. I made myself over-weight.
But, a GF diet doesn’t necessarily contribute to weight loss.
On the other hand, a paleo diet does appear to encourage weight loss.
This is why.
A Paleo Diet is often a low carb diet
By eliminating grains and starchy vegetables and replacing them with nutrient-dense vegetables and low glycemic load fruits, the paleo diet lowers total carbohydrate consumption.
Scientific evidence has consistently shown that low carb diets are extremely effective in promoting weight loss and health. See here.
One study also found that a low carb diet was even better for weight loss than the Mediterranean Diet.
The carbohydrate content of low-carbohydrate diets is generally as follows:
Liberal low carb diet (<130 grams of carbs/day)
Moderate low carb diet (20-50 grams of carbs/day)
Strict low carb diet (ketogenic) (<20 grams of carbs/day)
This template is a general scheme. Various low carb advocates propose slightly different carb amounts.
Also, low carb diets tend to be high healthy fat diets but I’ll get into that in another post.
It’s important to note that not all paleo diets have to be low carb.
Athletes often need a higher carb diet.
I also know from experience that my children need a higher carb diet.
While a paleo diet will probably encourage weight loss it’s not simply a weight loss diet.
It encourages good food choices that can contribute to better health.
Before I end I’d like to mention that many paleo proponents adhere to an 80%- 20% policy when eating paleo.
That means in certain circumstances it may not be possible to eat paleo. Therefore it’s possible within reason to cheat sometimes.
There will be times when you just can’t say no to that GF birthday cake.
However, if you’re gluten intolerant it’s never okay to cheat with gluten!
Phew, I know that’s a lot of information.
I hope I have helped you see how going GF might be a good first step on your journey to better health.
But if you want to take your health to the next level a GF paleo-type diet might be the way to go.
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