The Glamorization of Gluten-Free

When did it become hip to give up gluten?

Gwyneth Paltrow said she got rid of gluten to lose her extra “holiday” pounds. Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian declared their devotion to a gluten-free diet on Twitter. Now Lady Gaga is the latest celebrity to embrace a gluten-free diet, reportedly to slim down for her international concert tour.

Why is gluten-free the new diet craze?


That’s the topic of my recent post for WebMD: Will Going Gluten-Free Help You Lose Weight?

The answer is, it depends. There’s nothing inherent about a gluten-free diet that’s going to melt away the pounds. It may help if you “get rid of the junk” and eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains that are naturally gluten-free, says registered dietitian Shelley Case. But it certainly won’t help if you just simply load up on the burgeoning array of prepackaged gluten-free products that are selling like hotcakes.

An excellent research review article in the September issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics tackles this topic: Gluten-Free Diet: Imprudent Dietary Advice for the General Population?

Written by Glenn Gaesser and Siddhartha Angadi, the article looks at the data and makes the following conclusions:

While a gluten-free diet is important for individuals with celiac and gluten sensitivity, there’s no evidence to support that gluten-free diets are beneficial for weight loss
Some studies suggest gluten-free diets may actually make matters worse for some overweight and obese individuals (linked to an increase in BMI)
Research shows that gluten-free diets can be inadequate in essential nutrients (linked to deficiencies in B vitamins, iron and folate)
Gluten-free baked goods are often high in fat and calories
Going gluten-free for purposes of weight loss may have unintended consequences

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Now gliadin may be the gluten, or at least if you buy into the book by Wisconsin preventive cardiologist and “seeker-of-truth in health” William Davis. Dr. Davis is building an entire empire on his Wheat Belly brand, but it’s based more on his opinions vs. fact. These bloggers have done a good job of breaking down the claims:

Wheat Belly Busted

Wheat Belly Review by Summer Tomato

Wheat Belly? Wheat Berry!

Slam Dunked and Wheat Belly

Dr. Davis makes a powerful case for his opinions, as you can see in one of his promotional videos below, but anecdotal observations are not a substitute for science.

Here’s an excellent article written by Julie Jones that analyzes the claims made in Wheat Belly. Hope it will help you think twice before buying the book or believing the hype.

Sure, we could all benefit from cutting down on refined, starchy, sugary carbs. No argument. But let’s not condemn whole grains, which have a bushel of studies supporting their positive impact on our health, including weight management.  

Image courtesy of disneymike on Flickr

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  • Kara Nutt

    One of the side effects of gluten-free being the new “in diet” is that it is making it easier for those of us with actual gluten sensitivities to go out to eat. Many restaurants are adding gluten-free menus and educating the staff. I have no problem benefiting from all the new, better tasting options now available as they try to cater to the crowd of new demanding gluten-free dieters.

  • Janet Helm

    Kara,
    Yes, totally agree with you! There are a lot more options now for people who truly need to follow a gluten-free diet — for celiac or gluten sensitivity. And glad to see these products improve from a nutritional standpoint. However, some people do believe that if they see “gluten-free” on the label than it must be healthy. A gluten-free cookie is still a cookie.
    In no way do I want to discount the importance of a gluten-free diet for people who have celiac or gluten sensitivity…I know I seemed to ruffle some feathers when I’ve written about this topic in the past. But I agree with my colleagues who say making it “trendy” to go gluten-free may have some unintended consequences.

    https://nutritionunplugged.com/2009/03/gluten-free-is-latest-diet-craze/

  • Interesting article. I wasn’t aware that it had become “hip”. I used to work at a natural grocery store, and our shoppers really appreciated our gluten free section, but I think 99% of these people really couldn’t handle gluten in their systems at all, and almost nobody bought this stuff by choice. Among other reasons, it tends to be more expensive. That’s interesting that people seem to be choosing to eat gluten-free now, even if they don’t necessarily need to.

  • Thanks for writing this post! Being in school for nutrition, I find it very frustrating how the gluten-free diet has become such a fad, with celebrities endorsing it left and write for non-medical reasons. It’s a strange catch-22, because although it is great that there is so much more availability for those who medically need a gluten-free diet, it also means that it leads to confusion among the general public and can also lead to products being marketed as gluten-free (to follow the trends) that may not really be safe for those who need a gluten-free diet. I also have seen a trend in the blog-world with a lot of adopting of gluten-free diets as part of a challenge or to follow a diet; I also though to be fair have seen a lot of bloggers find out through their doctor that they really do need to follow a GF diet. This is something I get asked about constantly when I tell people I’m in school to be a RD! I guess it’s just another thing to add to the list of myths to bust about nutrition.

  • Else

    I actually disagree that this latest fad is helping Celiacs. I find that restaurants introducing “gluten-free” menus WITHOUT understanding what gluten free really means. They don’t use ingredients that are guaranteed to be gluten free and they don’t train their staff on how to prevent cross contamination. The trendy dieters don’t care about cross contamination and don’t ask for special preparation for their food. So restaurants assume gluten free doesn’t require anything special. But of course for celiacs it does. I’ve also seen a lot of pre-packaged products that are labelled “gluten-free” with fine print that says “may contain traces of gluten”. Huh? It either is gluten-free or it isn’t. No company would dare label something as “nut-free” and “may contain traces of nuts”. Nut allergies are taken seriously. Gluten intolerance is not. We need the same level of care and concern.

  • According to some of my readings in the internet, gluten is low in carbohydrates, rich in protein and iron. If it’s low in carb, then they have nothing to be afraid of.

  • I am going to have to disagree that just because something is a fad discredits it. Our wheat has changed in terms of gluten content and many people feel better when it is removed from their body. Plus, much of what people refer to as “whole” can raise your blood sugar as much as white flour products. I think if we dismiss something as trendy or write it off because a celebrity jumps on board we miss an opportunity to tease out the pros and cons.

  • German Kessler

    i believe you are perfectly right! i don’t think there are any clinical studies that show the advantages of a gluten free diet. gluten based food is present in many cultures throughout the world and not all of those people have weight related problems. studies regarding diet composition are important in determining the advantages of a certain diet type. the one advantage i would see to come out of the gluten free diet is, indeed, the fact that it leads to eating more fruits and vegetables. this can lead to a healthier life over all, but i am not sure about the long term effect.

  • Hey Lauren,
    I hear you. Certainly, we shouldn’t dismiss something just because it becomes popular or is a fad. Similarly, we shouldn’t immediately jump on a bandwagon just because Hollywood embraces it, or a celebrity tweets about it. I’m all for doing what’s right for the individual, and if someone feels better eliminating gluten, then that’s great. I guess my main point is that a gluten-free diet may not be the best approach for everyone if weight loss is a goal…and if you simply load up on a bunch of gluten-free baked goods and do nothing else, you’re not really making improvements.

  • I wish the GF diet had never become so popular. I have had to follow a gluten-free diet since childhood, but I am constantly coming across people who raise an eyebrow when I (politely) pass on foods I cannot eat. I’m not doing it for fun. I used to love to eat gluteny foods before I found out I had Celiac disease. I even had a friend who who used the phrase “gluten-free ice cream” to represent those “healthier-than-thou” type of people. Frustrating.

  • Gluten is a big issue in my family. I am a celiac, as is one of my brothers. Another brother is gluten intolerant but has tested negative for celiac. And my husband has gone gluten free after trying it for a month and realised he lost the uncomfortable, bloated feeling. So we have the full range! It’s causing quite a big debate in the celiac world because more people going gluten free means more choice and availability, but increasingly people seeing it as a ‘fad diet’ and not a medical condition. I’ve blogged about it here
    http://www.downwithgluten.com/the-gluten-free-eating-trend-how-helpful-is-it/

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