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Should You Go Gluten Free?

Whole Wheat Bread - With Gluten

Gluten-Free is one of the biggest trends in dieting since Atkins and South Beach launched their assault on carbs. You can now buy gluten-free beer, bread, ketchup and pizza. In fact, according to the market research company Packaged Facts, in 2010 retailers sold $2.6 billion worth of gluten-free food.

It's strange that it's so popular, because the majority of people aren't even sure what gluten is. I'll make it simple.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, gluten is, "a yellowish gray powdery mixture of water-insoluble proteins occurring in wheat and other cereal grains and composed chiefly of the proteins gliadin and glutenin." Gluten is the ingredient in flour that helps baked good rise and contributes to their chewiness.

Seems harmless enough. So why are so many companies working to remove it from their products? When a package says gluten-free does that mean it's better for you? I found there are really three answers to that question.

Answer 1: If you have celiac disease...

For 1% of the population with celiac disease, gluten-free is the only way to go. Eating even a small amount of food with gluten in it can cause vomiting, gas, bloating, fatigue, diarrhea and weight loss. Children may fail to gain weight or grow normally. The symptoms are the result of an abnormal immune system response that prevents gluten from being absorbed properly. Over time the poor absorption of vitamins and minerals can lead to anemia, rickets and even osteoporosis.

To test if you have celiac disease, doctors take a biopsy from the small intestine. Here's the tough part. In order for a proper diagnosis to be made, you MUST be eating a diet that contains gluten for at least 4 weeks before the biopsy is taken. So if you've gone on a gluten-free diet, the test won't work, it'll come back negative. Consult your doctor to make sure you're following proper procedures to ensure an accurate test.

Currently there is no cure for celiac disease, the only option is to adopt a gluten-free diet. Fortunately for those suffering, if they stick to a gluten-free diet they can reverse the damage it may have caused, reduce their long-term risks and even eliminate painful symptoms.

Answer 2: If you are gluten sensitive...

Then there are the gluten-sensitive. Those are people who have many of the symptoms of celiac disease, but no medical diagnosis. Gluten may be the problem, or they may have other issues such as a wheat allergy. Rather than adopting a gluten-free diet, if you suspect you have a problem you should work with your doctor to first rule out celiac disease. If the results are negative, meet with an allergist to see if any of the other foods you're eating are causing the problem.

Answer 3: If you want to lose weight...

Finally there are the people who want to cut out gluten as a way to lose weight. They believe foods without gluten are healthier or of higher quality. Sadly it's simply not true. Many gluten-free foods are higher in sugar, higher in calories and lower in protein than their traditional counterparts. Here's an example.

Amy's makes a delicious line of frozen pizzas. The single serve Margherita Pizza has 400 calories, 4 grams of sugar and 16 grams of protein per serving. By comparison the gluten-free Margherita pizza has 22% more calories, twice the sugar and 25% less protein. If you were to switch from the regular to the gluten-free for health reasons, you would be eating more calories and sugar while taking in less protein. Instead of slimming down, many people actually gain weight when they switch to a gluten-free diet.

Regular
Gluten Free

Gluten-free is the obvious choice for people with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. But if you don't have those issues, there are no medical studies showing a gluten-free diet will help you lose weight or improve your health. If you're serious about losing weight, the best way ever devised is to spend a little effort counting calories. Don't waste your time on the gluten-free craze.


UPDATE: Gluten Free Diet May Cause Increase in Type 2 Diabetes

In 2011 the gluten free craze was really starting to pick up. It's a very real problem for people who have celiac disease or are gluten intolerant, but seemed like a bad choice for the average dieter.

When we compared gluten free foods to their gluten filled counterparts, we found the gluten free options had higher calories and less healthy fiber. Now a major study from Harvard University shows the consequences of eating gluten free foods.

After reviewing 30 years of medical data from 200,000 participants, researchers found that subjects who limited gluten or avoided it completely, had a 13% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. You read that right. Gluten free INCREASES the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Geng Zong of Harvard's School of Public Health said, "Gluten-free foods often have less dietary fiber and other micronutrients, making them less nutritious and they also tend to cost more." Exactly what we found when we compared regular gluten foods to their gluten-free counterparts. Dietary fiber can help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and gluten-free foods simply don't have as much.

The conclusion we made about the gluten free trend in 2011 is just as valid today. Gluten-free is the obvious choice for people with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. But if you don't have those issues, there are no medical studies showing a gluten-free diet will help you lose weight or improve your health. If you're serious about losing weight, the best way ever devised is to spend a little effort counting calories. Don't waste your time on the gluten-free craze.

Celiac Disease Foundation For more information, visit the Celiac Disease Foundation.

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
beginning any diet or exercise program.

10/9/2011
Updated 3/4/2014
Updated 3/13/2017

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