A gluten-free diet was a popular weight loss strategy for a minute, and luckily that seems to have passed. However, I still think we should clear up some misconceptions regarding gluten-free diets. This is actually a life-saving diet for some people!
What is gluten, anyway?
Gluten is a group of proteins found in wheat products like breads, pastas and cereals. It is also found in products that are made from wheat like beer and malt vinegar. Even medications and beauty products can contain gluten.
A gluten-free diet is the only treatment for people with celiac disease.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the intestines to become inflamed when gluten is consumed. While not necessarily a new disease, it was highly underdiagnosed until about the 1990s. This is why celiac disease seems to be more commonplace than ever. Unfortunately, there is no medication or cure for this disease. However, following a gluten-free diet is effective in keeping people with celiac disease healthy.
Going gluten-free will probably not help you lose weight.
I say probably because I try to avoid talking in absolutes, especially when it comes to weight loss strategies - different things work for different people. If you currently eat a lot of bread, pasta, cookies and cakes, yes, if you stop eating all of these things you could definitely lose weight. If you are just swapping out gluten-containing foods for gluten-free options, you probably will not. There is no evidence that simply going gluten-free can help with weight loss. Actually, many people GAIN weight while starting a gluten-free diet. Higher calorie ingredients like almond flour are often used in gluten-free products, making many of these products higher in fat and calories when compared to their traditional counterparts.
Gluten sensitivity is a real thing.
I must admit that I didn’t know gluten sensitivity was a real diagnosis during my first several years as a dietitian. My opinion is that most healthcare professionals are unaware and uneducated about Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. I personally have never worked with a patient that had an official diagnosis of this.
While about 1% of Americans have celiac disease, somewhere around 6% of the population could possibly have gluten sensitivity. Symptoms can include gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, headache, fatigue, and mental fogginess. Research is limited on gluten sensitivity and it’s probably underdiagnosed (again, my opinion). I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually see this diagnosed more often, not dissimilar from the spike in diagnoses we saw with celiac disease.
Not following a gluten-free diet can be very dangerous for some people.
For people with celiac disease, there are a lot of potential consequences that could come with straying from the diet. Some people with celiac disease get symptoms such as abdominal pain and diarrhea from just one breadcrumb, while others may have no symptoms at all after consuming a decent amount of gluten. Don’t let a lack of symptoms fool you into thinking it’s okay to eat that cookie or bagel! For people with celiac disease, consuming gluten can cause malabsorption of important nutrients and potentially lead to things like anemia, arthritis, certain types of cancers, and osteoporosis. For children, it can cause poor growth. For pregnant women it can potentially cause miscarriage and birth defects.
I have heard the question “how often can I cheat?” from more than one person recently diagnosed with celiac disease. Normally, I am a firm believer in “everything in moderation” and indulging in your favorite treat from time to time. For celiac disease however, unfortunately there’s just no wiggle room for any gluten at all.
Going gluten-free is not healthier or safer for most people.
For the vast majority of us without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, we can enjoy gluten as part of a healthy diet. I hear a lot “If gluten is really bad for some people, it must be bad for everyone”. Let’s think about a peanut allergy. If someone with a peanut allergy consumes peanut butter, they could possibly have an anaphylactic reaction and die. Things really can’t get anymore serious and dangerous than that. However, people that don’t have this allergy can enjoy the healthy properties of peanuts, such as their high fiber and healthy fat content. Gluten-free products aren’t necessarily healthier, and as previously mentioned, they can be higher in calories and fat. There are no health benefits of a gluten-free diet for most people. Foods like bread, pasta and crackers have lots of good nutrients like fiber, thiamin, folate and iron - don’t avoid them unless you have to!