Many foods that are gluten-free are also low in carbohydrates (carbs), but there are enough exceptions that the two concepts should not be seen as the same. Part of the confusion comes in defining what carbohydrates are, exactly. Wheat and wheat flour are some of the best known examples, and gluten-free foods typically avoid from these ingredients, but white sugar, starches, and flours made from other grains can be high in carbs while also being gluten-free. People who are looking to avoid carbohydrates usually need to look for foods that are specifically labeled as being low in this nutrient, and simply avoiding gluten is not enough.
The Difference Between Gluten and Carbohydrates
Gluten is a protein that is found most commonly in wheat, though related grains like barley and rye also contain it. Healthy people are usually able to process this protein as a part of normal digestion, but some individuals have sensitivities or allergies that prevent the body from breaking it down, in many cases leading to nausea and intestinal discomfort or other symptoms. Avoiding gluten entirely is usually the best way for these people to stay healthy, but adopting a low-carb diet is rarely ever required.
Wheat is a carbohydrate, but it is only one of many. Any food labeled gluten-free is guaranteed to contain no traces of wheat, barley, or related grains, though it could very well contain other carbs like white sugar or rice. As such, claiming that a gluten-free food is also a low carb food may be true in some cases, but it is in no way a universal rule.
People who are hoping to lose weight often adopt low-carb diets. Carbohydrates are “simple” energy sources, which means that they are converted quickly to glucose, a blood sugar. Forcing the body to get energy from more complex food sources, like meat or unrefined grains, often improves metabolic efficiency, which in turn can burn more calories and lead to weight loss over time. It can be tempting to think that wheat-free foods are diet-friendly, but a quick look at their health attributes shows that this not always the case.
One of the tricks that many food manufacturers use when making wheat-free foods is to substitute similar ingredients for those that must be avoided. Pasta can be made with millet or rice flour, for instance; cookies might use tapioca as a binding agent. These sorts of substitutes may actually be higher in net carbs than gluten-containing alternatives would be, which can make the resulting product not only not low carb, but actually carb-heavy.
Sugars and Sweeteners
Another thing that carb-conscious eaters must look out for is how foods are sweetened. Things like refined sugar and honey contain no gluten, but are very high in simple carbohydrates. Recipes that avoid gluten often call for higher-than-normal amounts of sweetener, usually to help improve the overall taste, since many people complain that foods that cut out the wheat and related products lack much flavor. Adding sugar can help make them taste better, but comes at a cost where both calories and carbohydrates are concerned.
Carbs in Fruits and Vegetables
Fruit is another example of a food that is gluten-free but not low carb. Nearly all fresh fruits contain large amounts of natural sugars, and levels are often even higher in dried varieties. People hoping to limit their carbohydrate intake, whether to lose weight or for some other reason, typically avoid or at least limit fruits. Those with wheat sensitivities don’t usually have this concern.
Potatoes are another example of a high-carbohydrate food that someone on a wheat-free diet could eat. Most vegetables, however, satisfy the criteria for both gluten-free and low carb eaters. Vegetables that are low in sugars and starch, like cabbage and broccoli, are usually the best candidates.
The Importance of Labeling
Most prepared foods that either contain no gluten or are low in carbohydrates are labeled as such by the manufacturer, and consumers must read carefully to be sure of exactly what they’re getting. Wheat-free foods that are also low carb almost always promote this fact. If only one attribute is named, it is usually safe to assume that the other does not apply.
Health Concerns and Risks
A dieter who is trying to limit his or her carbs by eating wheat-free foods is not likely to succeed, and may in fact gain weight. This can prove frustrating, but it is not usually harmful. The same is not typically true for a person who must avoid gluten for medical reasons because if he or she eats low carb foods thinking that they are gluten-free, he or she can get very ill. Most people who have to avoid wheat can’t tolerate it at all. A low carb cracker or a bread that has reduced wheat flour isn’t likely to be any better for someone with a gluten intolerance than one following a more standard recipe.