The G-Free Diet Doesn’t Make the Grade

gdietAnother celebrity diet book.

This time it’s Elisabeth Hasselbeck from The View.  She’s written a book called “The G-Free Diet: A Gluten-Free Survival Guide” that extols the virtues of going gluten-free.  Perhaps you’ve seen her making the rounds on all the talk shows.  If not yet, you will.

Elisabeth has celiac disease so a gluten-free diet is her treatment.  It’s the only way to manage this autoimmune disease.  So it’s great that she’s sharing her personal story, but I have real problems with her glorifying gluten-free and making it appear to be the best thing since, er, sliced bread.   “Even people with no health issues have a great deal to gain by giving up gluten,” she writes.  “The G-Free Diet can help with weight management, it can elevate your energy levels, improve your attention span and speed up your digestion.  Whatever your motivation for going G-free, this book will help you achieve your goal.”

Not necessarily.  In fact, many people say they’ve gained weight by going gluten-free — especially if they load up on all the gluten-free processed foods that have exploded onto the market. It can also be tough nutritionally — many people who eliminate all gluten-containing foods wind up deficient in several nutrients.   If celiac is ruled out, there is little or no evidence to support a connection between gluten and other ailments.  Read my earlier post  Gluten-Free is Latest Diet Craze.

On the positive side, Elisabeth’s media blitz is bringing attention to celiac disease — one of the most under-diagnosed disorders in the country.  The estimated incidence is 1 out of 1oo people , yet 95% of the people who have it don’t know it.  So it’s critical that people who suspect a problem get a proper diagnosis. 

The big problem I have with The G-Free Diet is that it makes giving up gluten appear trendy.  Self-diagnosis is already rampant and this book will simply add fuel to the fire.   Jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon without being tested for celiac may make a proper diagnosis even trickier.  If you do have celiac, eliminating gluten will help the gut heal temporarily.  So if you get tested after you’ve started a gluten-free diet, an accurate diagnosis could be missed.  That’s what troubles registered dietitian Shelley Case, a leading expert on celiac and gluten, who I spoke to about the book.   She’s concerned that without an official diagnosis of celiac disease, people might not be motivated to strictly adhere to the diet or receive follow-up medical care.  For people who truly have celiac, gluten-free is far from a fad — it’s the only treatment and it must be adhered to for life.

Shelley pointed out several errors in the book, including the descriptions of which foods and ingredients contain gluten.  Come on, that’s pretty bad if you can’t even get that right.   Elisabeth also incorrectly refers to celiac as an allergy.  Several online reviews have pointed out some of the book’s shortcomings, and many folks in the “celiac community” have become alarmed over the misinformation. 

Elaine Monarch, founder and executive director of the Celiac Disease Foundation, just released a statement pointing out many of the inaccuracies in “The G-Free Diet.”  Among her comments: 

  • “Several items in the book are misleading and inaccurate and place further limitations on the GF diet.  The gluten-free lifestyle is a lifelong commitment for the diagnosed celiac, not an option, not a fad diet — adhering to the GF lifestyle requires patience and persistance.  This lifestyle cannot be trivialized.”
  • “Our mission is to assist in getting people accurately diagnosed and the message in this book could defeat this mission.  It appears that this book is being marketed as a fitness diet — eat g-free and feel so much better.” 
  • “While it is important to call attention to celiac disease, the information must be accurate — the inaccuracies in this book are potentially dangerous and detrimental to celiacs and to those yet to be diagnosed if people self diagnose and start eating GF.”

What disturbs me the most is that  Elisabeth sets herself up as the expert.   I hope in her media interviews she will point out the need to see registered dietitians like Shelley who specialize in celiac and gluten-free diets. Giving up gluten can be tough since this ingredient is so prevalent in our food supply, and the diet is fairly restrictive.   Nutrition counseling with an RD will help people learn the complexities of a gluten-free diet and the nutritional challenges.  

I also hope she’ll urge the public to NOT try the diet before seeing their doctor to be tested for celiac.  That’s the best public service she could provide.

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  • Stephanie

    So true!

    Elisabeth makes her claims not based on scientific evidence but the fact that she felt so damn good after going GF herself b/c, well, she actually does have CD, so she felt really, really bad for a very time. There are so many GF options out there these days that it’s easy to get excited about going GF, especially when you have the optimistic, upbeat, peppy attitude Elisabeth has. She should have collaborated with an RD, just as Oprah should collaborate with one too ;).

    Having CD myself I get asked a lot if going GF will help you lose weight. And that is sooo not the case. Most gain weight when they discover the, for instance, GF Bakehouse chocolate chip cookies and their local GF bakery (these are popping up in several places). It can be a very healthy diet, but so can one based on wheat!

  • I have not read the book, but am sad that once again, a celebrity is given an oopportunity to write a “diet book” & proclaim to be an expert. Gluten-free has become the last “fad diet” and all I can do is roll my eyes as I end up having to debunk another myth. Why don’t we just have plumbers as experts on heart disease – so much of it has to do with out internal plumging, right (LOL).

    On a serious note, I tried to go gluten free for 2 weeks to see what it would be like, to have empathy for my patients, and to see if it actually made me FEEL any better. It did not change the way I feel, other than increasing my crankiness because I was tired of rice and rely so much on grain products that do contain gluten. I wish the media would really focus on RDs as nutrition experts – we do get degrees, participate in supervised practice and pass a national exam… !

  • Great review Janet. We need to empower people with celiac disease–with clear information, rather than adding more confusion to gluten-free eating, which can seem daunting (from deciphering ambiguous food labels to cross-contamination issues, not to mention eating out).

    I say this both as a registered dietitian who specializes in the gluten-free diet and as a mother who has a son with celiac disease. I hope Elisabeth steps up to the challenge, by urging people to seek a proper diagnosis and consult a registered dietitian who specializes in celiac disease.

    In the meanwhile, here are couple of helpful sites for more information:
    -Celiac Disease Foundation
    -Celiac Disease Awareness Campaign

  • I just saw a Larry King interview with Elisabeth, where she was claimed that being on the gluten-free diet is beneficial for those who do not even have celiac disease and states that it can help with ADHD, improve energy levels, etc! I have not read the book, but does she back up all these claims with scientific evidence? And no, she did not mention seeing a Registered Dietitian if you have celiac disease, and failed to urge the public to see their doctor before trying the diet. True, Janet, unfortunately this book will just give us more to refute when clients come to us saying they want to lose weight on this new fad diet.

  • Thanks for this important post!

    Just like many other food related issues gluten free has become a fad.

    In this case the added danger is that people with celiac disease need to adhere to a very strict gluten free regimen to maintain their health, and the rest of the fashionably gluten free hitch-hikers “observe” it with lesser degrees.
    Making it a fad rather than a medical issue really muddles the water, and gets restaurants and other food producers enter the gluten free marketplace with very little understanding of the issue. It takes much more than eliminating wheat flour and pasta from a dish to even cook a gluten free meal at home.

    There’s no merit to a gluten free diet if one doesn’t have a real diagnosis (celiac), and the energy put into eliminating gluten could have fueled a more reasonable nutrition cause.

  • Renata
  • PlanetSpinz

    I went to doctors for my exhaustion, pain in my gut, the runs, and sore on my back, and they told me I had chronic fatigue. Knowing that I was skin test positive for a wheat allergy, I used the internet to figure out why some foods like barley gave me diarrhea, and why I felt like I had the flu all the time. I did figure it out myself, and stopped all gluten foods, especially my morning bowl of poison – cheerios filled with oats and food starch. Then my energy increased, the diarrhea stopped, and unfortunately I did gain weight. I know immediately if I have eaten wheat, I get two black eyes (allergic shiners) and my sinuses blow up. So for some of us, the problems are not just one thing but can be celiac (which affects the intestines), gluten intolerance and food allergies.

    Food intolerance is often tested by food elimination diets, and that is how I figured out my problem because too many doctors don’t listen to their patients.

    As for Elisabeth Hasselbeck, I hope that Dr. Peter Green who wrote the forward and has written books about celiac himself, read the book and approved of it. I have no love for Hasselbeck, who I consider a hypocrite (claiming to be a family values Christian yet keeping her children away from their professional football player father) and a shill for the reactionary Bill Gedde, but if I had read about gluten intolerance ten years ago, I might not have gotten so sick for so long before I figured out what was wrong with me.

  • I have to second this article and comments. Of course she felt better – before she was diagnosed and went gluten-free her body was in turmoil.

    While it’s great to get the public to notice Celiac and the need to make gluten-free foods readily available, it is a travesty that a public figure with huge potential influence cannot take the time to seek out the real experts in the field. She could have acknowledged the registered dietitians who are considered gluten-free gurus, and the various celiac/gluten-free organizations who offer assistence to people who have Celiac.

    Has anyone written to her – how about suggesting she have Shelly Case and Elaine Monarch on “The View” one day?

    Holly Lee Brewer, MS RD CDE
    Pediatric Dietitian, Diabetes Educator
    Medical Nutrition Therapist, Las Vegas, NV

  • Megan

    I don’t see the harm in following a gluten free diet without being diagnosed….if you know there is something wrong with you and going gluten free makes you feel better, what do you gain from a diagnosis? Nothing really, because you will do the same thing as if you didn’t go to a doctor, remain gluten free.

  • Megan

    also…to all the comments on here…people can be gluten intolerant without having celiac. And there is scientific evidence that gluten free diets help with things such as ADD and autism

  • Lisa Monti, MS, RD

    As an RD with Gluten Intolerance, but unable to obtain a definitive diagnosis of CD (celiac disease), I did appreciate the attention Hasselbeck’s book is bringing to the disease and gluten intolerance in general. Not having read the book , but after seeing Elizabeth’s interviews on several shows and reading reviews, I agree, it seems she’s promoting the diet as an “alternative way to energy,” I believe were the words she kept using. The fact that Dr. Green, the CD guru at Columbia Presbytyrian in NYC, and the Dr. who diagnosed Elizabeth (I was seen by his associate, and was still unable to confirm a CD diagnosis, but continue to display symptoms), wrote the forward to her book is a bit confusing; don’t mean to sound disparaging to a great physician who does so much for the CD community, but too bad he did not edit the book as well. His own (Dr. Green’s) book remains a great resource for CD. I would like to see more attention and research on the distinctions between CD and other causes for gluten intolerance.

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  • I was diagnosed with Coeliac’s disease at the beginning of 2011. Before that I would eat anything and everything and still can’t seem to stop. I’ve had very severe 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 mad. 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 obese according to the BMI index. Living in a remote region in Alaska makes it a bit incovenient to buy gluten-free products without bartering 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 life and I really have no support groups except what’s on this internet.

  • As someone with celiac disease, I well understand the ins and outs of a gf diet. Whether or not you like Elizabeth’s book aside (I thought it had it’s flaws, but also it’s good points) there is SO MUCH EVIDENCE that wheat-free is healthy for all, and that wheat causes so many illnesses. Commercial, gluten-free food is low quality, but that has nothing to do with the fact that gluten has no purpose in man’s diet. A healthy, well-balanced, whole foods, homemade foods gluten-free diet is extremely beneficial. And not in a fad-diet fake gluten-free oreos from the grocery store kind of way, but in a this-is-how-man-was-intended-to-eat (real, ahem, foods) kind of way. Spend some time here:

  • The post is written in very a good manner and it entails many useful information for me. I am happy to find your distinguished way of writing the post. Now you make it easy for me to understand and implement the concept.

  • Jiro Miyashita

    I’ve tested negative for celiac disease and now planning to go gluten-free for a month or to see how I feel. is it necessary to avoid all cross-contamination in the test period? Should I avoid oats?

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