Gluten-free labels on foods doesn’t mean they are healthy.
In the 1960s, the link between saturated fats and heart disease resulted in a low-fat diet craze with a corresponding spike in carbohydrate consumption. Although originally introduced in the 1970s, the Atkins diet hit its peak at the end of the century, telling people to put down bread and pick up bacon. Today, the gluten-free diet—which focuses on avoiding foods that contain the grain protein—has taken the diet community by storm.
Gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye and spelt, making most bread, pasta and tortillas off limits for gluten-free dieters. Because of gluten’s stabilizing characteristic (meaning it helps hold food products together), it’s also found in unexpected foods—soy sauce, salad dressings, and beer, to name a few. Although more and more gluten-free products are a popping up on grocery store shelves, it can be hard to completely avoid gluten in your diet.
Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity
For people with celiac disease, avoiding gluten is not a choice; it’s a necessity. Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder that effects about 1 percent of the population (1). If a person with celiac disease eats gluten, the body sees it as a foreign invader and attacks, resulting in a destroyed intestinal tract and decreased absorption of essential nutrients. A range of symptoms can arise from the disease including digestive problems, migraines, rashes, fatigue, ulcers, and muscle cramps.
This array of symptoms can make diagnosis of celiac disease difficult. Additionally, antibody testing or genetic testing results can suggest the prevalence of celiac disease, but cannot confirm it. If the screening tests come back positive, an invasive biopsy of the small intestine is need to diagnose a patient.
Because symptoms are not black and white, many people with celiac disease undergo years of discomfort and illness before being diagnosed. In fact, the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center estimates that 97 percent of people with symptoms don’t know they have the disease (2). Additionally, some people may have gluten sensitivity, meaning they have negative reactions when they eat gluten—bloating, constipation, headaches, and joint pain—but don’t test positive for celiac disease or a wheat allergy.
Cut gluten to lose weight
While a gluten-free diet is very effective for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities, it has turned into a fad weight-loss diet. A survey found that 30 percent of adults find a gluten-free diet appealing because it’s considered to be “healthy” (3).
Similar to the low-fat diet craze or the Adkin’s diet revolution, the gluten-free diet acts as an elimination diet. If you cut out a large portion of foods that you commonly consume—whether that be carbohydrates, fats, or foods with gluten—you are likely to lose weight.
Think of it this way: You’re at a work potluck and avoiding all things gluten. The pasta dish with Italian sausage and mozzarella cheese is off limits. Don’t even reach for one of Susie’s famous butter-baked rolls. Keep walking past the gluten-filled cake topped with frosting.
By avoiding these foods that you would normally indulge in, you’re cutting back on calories consumed, which supports weight loss.
The ideal situation would be for you to replace foods with gluten (plus excess fat, sodium, and sugar) with healthier options—fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and healthy fats. Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case.
Even special gluten-free foods you find at the grocery store have added fat to make up for flavor and texture and many times are higher in calories than version with gluten. Food companies are cashing in on the gluten-free hype by slapping GF labels on foods like cookies, chips, and candy. A gluten-free label doesn’t always equate to healthy.
Should you go gluten-free?
With so many undiagnosed people with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease, should you go gluten-free? If you experience extreme symptoms like those mentioned above, it may be worth it to do a little trial and error. Commit to cutting out gluten for a week and see how you feel. (Remember celiac disease only affects 1 percent of healthy people or 1 out of 133 people.)
But beware of the placebo effect—assuming that the intervention is effective when it’s really just in your head. Many times taking control of your diet (and possibly experiencing weight loss) can make you feel like the gluten in your diet was holding you back. If your positive improvements are the result of a placebo effect, it’s likely that your commitment to gluten-free will dwindle away because the benefit isn’t worth the difficulty of the lifestyle change.
If you continue with the gluten-free lifestyle, experience drastic improvements in how you feel, and think you may have an intolerance or sensitivity to gluten, visit your doctor and get the appropriate testing.
Just remember, going gluten-free isn’t as easy as it sounds, doesn’t always mean weight loss, and cuts out a lot of options at your work potluck.
- Rubio-Tapia A, Ludvigsson JF, Brantner TL, et al. The prevalence of celiac disease in the United States. Am J Gastoenterol 2012; 107(10):1158-44.
- University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center. Facts and Figures: http://www.uchospitals.edu/pdf/uch_007937.pdf
- NPD Group. Percentage of US adults trying to cut down or avoid gluten in their diets reaches new high in 2013, reports NPD. 2013. https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/press-releases/percentage-of-us-adults-trying-to-cut-down-or-avoid-gluten-in-their-diets-reaches-new-high-in-2013-reports-npd/