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These young adults, according to the research, were more likely to engage in healthier behaviours including better dietary intake and also valued food production practices (e.g., organic, non-GMO, locally sourced).
Of concern, they were also more likely to engage in unhealthy weight control behaviours and over-concern about weight.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota wanted to explore the sociodemographic and behavioral characteristics of young adults who value gluten-free as an important food attribute and investigate how this is associated with their dietary intake.
The study looked at a sample of 1,819 young adults 25 to 36 years old from the Project EAT longitudinal cohort study. They measured whether they value gluten-free food, weight goals, weight control behaviors, food production values, eating behaviors, physical activity, and dietary intake.
Investigators found that approximately 13 percent of participants valued gluten-free food. These individuals were four to seven times more likely to value food production practices such as organic, locally-grown, non-GMO, and not processed. There was also an association between using Nutrition Facts and having a weight goal and valuing gluten-free foods.
Interestingly, valuing gluten-free food was also linked to both healthy eating behaviors like eating breakfast daily and consuming more fruits and vegetables, and unhealthy weight control behaviors such as smoking, using diet pills or purging.
These data show that while eating gluten-free can be associated with an overall interest in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, it might also indicate a harmful preoccupation with weight loss and/or behaviors that are perceived to promote weight loss.
Researchers found that valuing gluten-free food was three times higher for young adults engaging in unhealthy weight control behaviors.
"I have concerns about the increasing number of people who perceive that eating a gluten-free diet is a healthier way to eat. Of particular concern is the higher risk for those engaging in unhealthy weight control practices for perceiving a gluten-free diet as important, given that eating gluten-free, may be viewed as a 'socially acceptable way' to restrict intake that may not be beneficial for overall health," noted lead investigator Dianne Neumark-Sztainer.
"If there is a need for eating gluten-free, then it is important to avoid foods with gluten. Otherwise, a dietary pattern that includes a variety of foods, with a large emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, is recommended for optimal health."
"Products labeled as 'low sodium,' 'natural,' and 'free from' certain food components or characteristics may be interpreted by consumers as being healthier overall," explained lead author Mary J.
"The health halo effect can have unintended consequences on eating habits, such as people overconsuming because they believe they have chosen a healthier product."
"Nutrition professionals counseling gluten-free clientele should ask about the reasons underlying valuing and/or eating gluten-free food along with other behaviors, particularly weight control, to promote overall nutrition and health," concluded Dr. Christoph.
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