Gluten is the current diet demon trending in America. In the 70’s it was sugar, the 80’s it was fat, the 90’s it was carbohydrates, and now, gluten. Everyone from celebrities to your next-door-neighbor seems to be touting the benefits of going gluten free. More energy, less bloating, weight loss, happiness….you name it and people claim gluten-free helps it. More than a 3rd of Americans are currently trying to cut gluten from their diets and sales of gluten free products are expected to reach $3 billion by 2015. This is a 3-fold increase since 2005!! So what is this “demon” food? Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and sometimes oats due to contamination. This little protein is responsible for the spongy texture of breads and often used to thicken soups and sauces.
There is an important distinction to be made among this gluten free frenzy. There are those who MUST avoid gluten and those who WANT to avoid gluten. May is Celiac Awareness Month, highlighting an autoimmune disease that causes over 300 symptoms associated with the consumption of gluten. Even a crumb of bread initiates intestinal atrophy and makes Celiac suffers extremely sick. Rachel Begun, MS, RD stresses that it is extremely important to know the warning signs, as 83% of people with Celiac are undiagnosed. Prevalence is increasing and estimates now stand at 1 in 100 Americans.
But could people without Celiac disease also benefit from going gluten-free? What about the spectrum of “gluten intolerance?” The latest research weighs in on these issues.
Often, when people lose weight after going gluten-free, it is because they have cut out processed junk food. Everything from cakes, cookies, brownies, snack mixes, heavily processed sauces, and frozen meals contain gluten. If you eliminated these foods from your diet anyways, you would lose weight. Additionally, cutting out gluten severely limits options when eating at restaurants or parties, which decreases the likelihood of overeating. It is also important to point out that there are plenty of gluten-free junk foods on the market now and these typically have even more calories and fat than traditional versions. When you remove gluten, you often have to add in extra fat and sugar to compensate for textural differences. For instance, gluten-free pretzels pack 140 calories and 6 grams of fat per serving compared to 110 calories and 0 grams of fat in regular pretzels. The lesson? Gluten-free foods are not a magic bullet for weight loss. Successes are likely linked to a forced focus on whole, unprocessed foods and more limited options. And don’t forget that it is all too easy to overindulge in gluten-free goodies too.
No studies currently exist to specifically link going gluten-free to having more energy. That being said, anecdotal stories suggest that people who remove gluten from their diets are suddenly balls of fire. First, removing gluten containing foods removes a lot of processed carbohydrates that are conclusively known to drain you of energy. Additionally, it is hard to tell whether extra energy is due to what was removed (gluten) or what was added (likely more unprocessed foods). Evidence does exist that shows incorporating more fruits and veggies into your diet will impact your energy levels. If you aren’t eating gluten, are you eating more fruits and veggies? Hopefully, but not necessarily. There is no guarantee that removing gluten will improve your energy, but focusing on unprocessed foods will.
What about gluten sensitivity?
More and more people are being diagnosed as “gluten sensitive.” This means that they did not test positive for Celiac disease, but still experience adverse effects related to gluten consumption such as bloating, intestinal distress, or headaches. This is becoming a more legit issue in the medical community. Celiac tests only test for two specific types of gluten proteins, while there are several other types of gluten proteins not classically considered for a Celiac diagnosis, that people can react to. As understanding of the complexities of gluten reactions continues to grow, I suspect a medically recognized gluten spectrum will be established. Stay tuned…
Bottom Line: There is no medical need to avoid gluten unless you have Celiac disease. If you remove gluten and find you feel better, great! Whether or not the reason is related specifically to gluten is up for debate, but finding what makes you feel good is of greater importance. If you do believe that you have a gluten allergy though, be sure to get tested first before you start experimenting. Limiting your gluten intake before doing so can result in inaccurate test results. Plus, if its not a gluten allergy that ails you, it could be something else entirely. Knowing what is going on in your body and what foods are safe and why is essential to having as full a diet as possible.
If you do end up experimenting with gluten free foods, try to stick with those that are naturally gluten-free versus those that are processed. Fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, milk, plain yogurt, and gluten-free grains like sprouted grains, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, amaranth, and teff are just a few foods that tend to be naturally gluten-free and can all be great healthy additions to any diet.
Tell Us: Do you try to avoid gluten? What are you favorite gluten-free foods?
The Gluten Free RD is a blog written and maintained byRachel Begun, MS, RD. Rachel is one of Around the Plate’s Nutrition Experts and a member of thePlate Community. As a Nutrition Expert, Rachel makes eating healthy simple. Find other healthy eating champions, nutrition experts, and recipe gurus on our community blog network.