Gluten-free, Grain-free and Paleo: Clarifying Terminology

GF Small headerHaving talked to a lot of folks in the Paleosphere, it seems many of us started our journey as gluten-free eaters. Then, somewhere along the way we discovered Paleo, focusing more on whole foods, avoiding grains and therefore continuing to be gluten-free by default. Finally, many Paleos progress to a point where we want occasional treats that will not harm our health and thus we find grain-free goodies. These treats are not strictly Paleo, but they are grain and gluten-free.

Still with me?

Let’s break these terms down assuming we’re all new to the scene.

Gluten-Free (GF): Avoiding foods that contain gluten, the protein found in many grains, predominately wheat, barley, and rye. Many times gluten will ‘sneak’ into a lot of other foods (like oats) via cross contamination.Certified GF

The problem with gluten: Celiac disease affects roughly 1% of the population. This is the autoimmune disease that causes significant digestive distress when exposed to even trace amounts of gluten.
There is also gluten sensitivity and gluten intolerance. Prevalence estimates range from 10-30% when totaling those that are either sensitive (mild, maybe unknown /unfelt reactions) or intolerant (moderate reactions like IBS, eczema, phlegm, inflammation, dysbiosis, leaky gut, brain fog etc.) to gluten.

A lot of people will notice a significant improvement in their health by going “gluten-free.” However, it’s wise to point out that just because something is GF, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy.

gfree corn dogs

Clearly, we can do a little better than GF corn dogs!

For more on Gluten – please check out these great resources: Dr. Tom O’Bryan, Nora Gedgaudas, and this amazing free guide from Diane over at Balanced Bites.

Paleo: A focus on pre-agricultural whole foods, like plants, animals, roots, seeds, nuts and seasonal fruit. Avoiding grains, legumes and all processed foods. This approach to eating is naturally both grain free and gluten free.
Eating a modern equivalent of what our hunter-gatherer genes expect us to improves overall health and can often eliminate many specific health issues.

Grain-Free: In my opinion, this last category has evolved within the Paleo community to indicate a food item that is not strictly whole or Paleo, but tends to be relatively harmless. This is especially true when compared to their grain containing counterparts. Basically, these are TREATS! Health(ier) recreations of things we like, miss or crave.

Sometimes you miss an old favorite.

But you want them to enjoy them without the deleterious effects of grains/gluten. Enter things like apple pie (my personal nostalgic craving) with crust made from almond flour, duck fat, arrowroot and maple sugar). Maybe not something we should eat everyday, but definitely ‘safer,’ especially when you’re eating well the majority of the time.

My contention is that these should be called “Grain-Free __________” (pies, cookies, muffins, cakes, brownies, etc).

But maybe not “Paleo Cookies.”

My hope is to help clarify some of these terms that are often used erroneously as synonyms. Let’s make sure to use terms and categories in appropriate and meaningful ways when guiding others on their health journey. And just to be clear, I’m definitely not trying to be the Paleo Police here. However, I do feel that labeling things appropriately is important in passing on consistent messages about healthy eating to new seekers and critics alike.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this as well as questions/concerns with other terms you’ve seen floating around.

Yours in Health,

Dr. Scott

3 thoughts on “Gluten-free, Grain-free and Paleo: Clarifying Terminology

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