Gluten-Free is Latest Diet Craze

Meet the dietary demon du jour:  gluten.  This protein in wheat, barley and rye has become the new carb —  just when bread was starting to make a comeback after the Atkins era.

Certainly, people with celiac disease need to strictly avoid gluten. For these individuals (1 out of 100 Americans) a gluten-free diet is far from a fad — it’s the only treatment. But the majority of folks filling up grocery carts with the vast array of gluten-free breads, cereal, pasta and processed foods do not have celiac.  The newly devoted simply believe going without gluten is a healthier way to eat — even if they don’t know why. 

Gluten has become a popular target of alternative health practitioners who are quick to recommend a gluten-free diet for whatever ails you.  Many vegans and raw food enthusiasts have added gluten to their list of ingredients to avoid.

no-gluten-symbolGiving up gluten has become a rallying cry on Web sites and blogs as a way to lose weight – especially for women over 40. But there is nothing inherent about a gluten-free diet that will enhance weight loss, unless it helps you get rid of the junk and eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains (such as brown rice and oatmeal) that are naturally gluten-free. You can easily gain weight on a gluten-free diet if  you rely on a lot of highly refined gluten-free grain products. Many commercially prepared gluten-free baked items have twice the carbs and a lot  of fat compared to their gluten-containing counterparts.  That’s because when you take out the gluten you need the extra sugar or fat to get the right texture. 

certified20gluten_free20logoEven though these products are basking in the better-for-you spotlight, don’t think you’re enhancing your health by stocking up on packages of gluten-free muffins, cakes and cookies. Just because it’s gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s healthier. Gluten-free foods offer no specific advantages, beyond the benefits for people who are diagnosed with celiac. In fact, gluten-free foods are often nutritionally inferior.

Many commercially prepared gluten-free baked goods are made with refined flours and starches (rice, potato, etc.) that are low in fiber and protein, and do not contain iron, folic acid and other B vitamins that are routinely added to wheat flour. Because most gluten-free grain products are not enriched, people with celiac often have a hard time getting enough of these key nutrients.  Several studies have shown that people following a gluten-free diet, especially when relying on commercially prepared gluten-free foods, have diets low in iron, fiber, B vitamins, calcium and vitamin D.

Fortunately, some manufacturers are beginning to use higher-fiber more nutritious grains such as quinoa, amaranth, teff and sorghum, and are starting to enrich gluten-free baked products with essential nutrients.

A gluten-free diet also can be expensive. Commercially prepared gluten-free products are about two to three times as expensive as their gluten-containing products.. During a trip to the Whole Foods Market in Chicago I gfbakehousefound a package of gluten-free hamburger buns for $7.99 compared to $3.69 for a larger package of conventional hamburger buns (8 vs. 6 buns). For sandwich bread, you could buy a gluten-free white rice loaf for $4.39 or a larger loaf of gluten-containing multigrain bread for $3.69.

The glorification of gluten-free is a mixed blessing. On one hand it may encourage more people to get tested for celiac – which remains undiagnosed in about 97 percent of the people who have it in this country. A typical diagnosis takes an average of 11 years because the symptoms are either dismissed or mistaken for other conditions.

However, there’s a downside to the current fervor — it may make a proper diagnosis of celiac even trickier. Starting a gluten-free diet before being tested for celiac may cause the intestines to heal temporarily and an accurate diagnosis will be missed.

If celiac is ruled out, there is little to no evidence to indicate that gluten is a culprit. Even so, some people say they simply feel better by avoiding gluten.

It’s hard to argue with that, even without scientific support to explain why. The important thing to remember, though, if you choose to go gluten-free, you need to pay special attention to the nutritional adequacy of your diet. You can’t assume that you’re automatically eating better and improving your health by jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon.

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  • Tina Marinaccio

    Very well written and insightful article. Regarding use of this diet for weight loss, it’s important that consumers understand that if they do lose weight, it is because they are eliminating foods that in turn decrease caloric intake, not because gluten is some sort of culprit in the obesity epidemic. As Registered Dietitians, we should look at why foods/food groups are being eliminated to rule out eating disorders.

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  • I am actually glad that GF is becoming a fad, because it makes finding GF products for those of use who need them (my husband is allergic to gluten, and so I am mostly GF by default) SO much easier and more accessible!! You are very right about things being more expensive though, and for that reason I make most everything from scratch rather than buying a pre-made food or a mix. We do our best to make foods that don’t require too many substitutions, and when I do make food that otherwise would not be gluten free, I do my best to incorporate bean flours (soy, chickpea, etc.) or nuts (almond flour, etc.), or whole grains like brown rice or quinoa in order to up nutritional content. We also are very conscious about incorporating a large quantity/variety of green foods in order to get sufficient amounts of the B vitamins, which can be hard to obtain with out eating enriched flour products. Great article!

  • What an insightful article. As a fresh pasta maker for 7 years I have had to face down the Atkins craze and now people, who without a Celiac diagnosis are deciding they must avoid gluten for reasons they can’t quite explain. Celiac is a serious disease that must be diagnosed by a physician. This gluten avoidance by healthy people might just be the aftermath of the Atkins diet.

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  • Great post and very detailed. The information about Atkins is actually very interesting from what I’ve seen – I thought about doing it, but … meh.

  • Anne Carson

    I completely agree with you that gluten-free baked goods can be fattening. However, I do have an interesting tidbit.
    Sugar and calories is not the point of the gluten-free diet , whether for weight loss or not. For example, I have gluten intolerance (three blood tests confirmed, biopsy negative.) When I was less careful and cheated a little bit for several months, I started gaining tons of weight–eating traces of wheat caused me to feel intensely hungry, and my blood sugar levels were spiking like no other. When I stopped cheating, my blood sugar was more regulated. As a dietitian, you should understand that weight has a little more to do than calories. Celiac disease has shown to have a connection to insulin resistance, so for people with hidden gluten intolerance, cutting out the gluten might even help with weight. Despite the “added calories.” Food allergies can cause fat gain. Yes, look it up.

    “Several studies have shown that people following a gluten-free diet, especially when relying on commercially prepared gluten-free foods, have diets low in iron, fiber, B vitamins, calcium and vitamin D.”
    Really? Explain to me how avoiding wheat leads to a lack of vitamin D (a vitamin we get from sunshine or fortified milk). Could it be that people who follow gluten-free diets do so because they have long-term absorption problems to begin with?

    Thirdaly, Celiac disease is not as rare as it was once thought. In Italy, the official number of Celiacs is 1 in 55. I hope that, as a dietitian, you will become more current with your information. Part of the reason Celiac disease used to be so “rare” was that doctors kept telling themselves it was “rare” and felt reluctant to diagnose. To this day, there are stories of people with Celiac disease who have to switch several doctors until they finally get diagnosed with the condition that has been there all along.

    Have some patience with people who go gluten-free without a doctor’s recommendation. Celiac disease and gluten are getting linked to many auto-immune diseases: diabetes, lupus, and multiple sclerosis. Many parents with autistic children get totally healed from avoiding gluten. If people have chronic pain problems and go off gluten, it’s totally harmless, and possibly life-saving, decision.

  • Janet

    Thanks for your message. You bring up several excellent points.
    Let me address your last one first. I am very current with the information on incidence in the U.S., it’s 1 in 100. And celiac is certainly not the “rare” disease it was once dismissed as. I couldn’t agree more. I think the big problem is under-diagnosis — and the problems that can arise as a result. That’s why I encourage people to be tested before starting a gluten-free diet so it won’t make a true diagnoses even harder. But if people feel better on a gluten-free diet, even if they don’t have celiac, that’s what is really important. Not arguing with that. It’s just the “magical thinking” that disturbs me. But you’re right, some people jump from doctor to doctor before a proper diagnosis, or celiac is missed for years before it’s confirmed. That may soon change with greater awareness of the condition.

    You mention the study that I cited regarding nutrient shortages that have been linked to gluten-free diets. I’m sure the vitamin D and calcium levels are related to less milk that may be consumed because people may be eating less cereal after starting a gluten-free diet. The other nutrients (iron, fiber, B vitamins) are from the grain products. Currently, most gluten-free grain products are low in fiber and are not fortified with iron and B vitamins like wheat flour (but that’s beginning to change, thankfully). Several studies have looked at people following gluten-free diets, and these are consistently the nutrients “at risk” of being low.

    And that’ s great that you had success losing weight on a gluten-free diet. Many people do when they find themselves cutting out sugary, starchy grains. If you start eating more foods that are naturally gluten free, like fruits, vegetables, beans, certain whole grains…then it might be easier to drop extra pounds. My only message was that a gluten-free diet should not be viewed as the latest fad diet…and you won’t automatically lose weight simply by cutting out gluten — and especially if you load up on these gluten-free packaged foods.

    But in no way do I want to devalue the importance of a gluten-free diet for people with celiac or for people who have had success following it.

  • Harry McBride

    Actually I find your website to be offensive. My daughter has celiac disease. My wife and I have chosen to go gluten-free with her. This was two years ago. I was always thin. Before going gluten-free I had slowly gained weight until I was at 185 lbs., which for my frame is heavy. Once I went gluten-free I lost 13 lbs. within two months and have maintained that weight. Gluten-free is not a fad. We Americans are overexposed to gluten in almost every food we eat. You can not write an article talking about the negatives of going gluten-free than write a response to Anne’s comment saying your not devaluing the importance of a gluten-free diet. Let’s not ride both sides of the fence.

  • Janet

    So sorry you feel that way. I think you missed my point with this article. A gluten-free diet is a valuable treatment for anyone with celiac disease. There’s no denying that. It’s certainly not a fad and it should be taken seriously.
    To me, making gluten-free “trendy” seems to discount how vital it is for anyone with celiac. For everyone else without celiac, a gluten-free diet it’s not necessarily healthier — although it can be. If you eliminated a lot of sugary, starchy foods from your diet when you went gluten-free, then I’m sure it was easier for you to lose weight. That’s certainly a plus — and a positive part about eating foods that are naturally gluten-free. Buying up processed foods just because they tout “gluten- free” on the label is not a way to enhance your diet.

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  • velderia

    From a few comments above:

    “I’m sure the vitamin D and calcium levels are related to less milk that may be consumed because people may be eating less cereal after starting a gluten-free diet. The other nutrients (iron, fiber, B vitamins) are from the grain products.”

    Oh god, less cereal – Oh no, I’m so scared.

    Seriously though, I don’t know what new gluten-avoiding people are eating now these days, but I’ve been avoiding BOTH gluten and even mostly cow’s milk for the majority of my life.
    I guess the gluten-free products that people are trying so hard to replace their gluten-containing products with, isn’t that healthy though, and is really just a overpriced treat I don’t buy very often.

    What I’ve been consuming… There’s so much more I can list that would take too many characters to type… Grinding quinoa at home using a blender is far cheaper than buying that boxed quinoa flour I’ve seen at Whole Foods that I’m never buying again. But then again, there’s such a thing as boiling quinoa – Much easier. I oftentimes mix it in with amaranth and millet. There’s plenty of foods that I can spot here that I can consume and have been consuming: Even though the author didn’t even think of people with food allergies. If I don’t have a lot of time to cook stuff, I make a lot of food in advance and freeze the leftovers to prevent spoilage.

    The hardest part, at least in my life thus far, of living with food allergies isn’t trying to find foods. At least I can spot labels that sometimes even my mom doesn’t spot. The hardest part is trying to EXPLAIN to people what I eat. I really don’t need muffins and scones in my life – Especially if they’re bleached. I want to throw up every single time my TV asks me, “Got milk?” No. Haven’t drank a glass in years.
    I’ve even stopped consuming soy recently (even soy lecithin), despite the romance I created with soymilk for a long time, and I’ve felt even more alive.

    So far I haven’t obtained beriberi.


  • I was diagnosed with Coeliac’s disease at the start of 2011. Before that I would eat anything and everything and still can’t seem to stop. I’ve been having very bad stomach pains and lots of other pain in my abdominal area for a long time. I try so hard to eat properly because of the fear the doctor has put into me, but get so dang frustrated. I try to bake bread but seem to mess it up. If I get it right then it goes bad fast. It’s like I can’t seem to keepa healthy diet and enjoy food. I have no patience for making “everything” that I eat and no will power. I’m 287 pounds and 5’4″ tall and way overweight according to the BMI index. Living in remote region in Northern Alaska makes it a bit incovenient to buy gluten-free products without paying a seal and a whale for shipping. So… I . I dont know how much longer I can keep this up. I constantly say to myself that I’ve been eating this way for 41 years and have been miserable for just about that long that why does it matter if I’m gluten free? It’s an everyday struggle with myself and I really have no support groups except what’s on this internet.

  • Tony

    I think everyone can benefit from a gluten-free diet. End of story. This 1 in 100 figure you keep popping out really has you fooled…. I mean really, if I followed what I was told by traditional doctors I would have been on Lipitor at 25. If you haven’t figured any of this out yet, I’m here to tell you that it’s all a lie.. and Wheat has become the symbol of slavery. They have bastardized the hell out of wheat, it’s genetically modified beyond all belief to make pockets bigger. It’s not just with wheat… soy is a big one. Look up Monsanto. Dairy is another. Stick with grass fed organic. Man there’s so much to say about the sticky substance gluten that adheres to the long intestinal wall and creates a breeding ground for candida and whatever else. If I would ever recommend someone to eat wheat.. I would definitely suggest they eat Organic and non GMO, if that even exists! But to say that there’s nothing wrong with wheat for some people is completely false and you have been misinformed. I can go on, but it’s too early in the morning.

  • Very nice post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your feed and I am hoping you write once more very soon!

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