MYTH: “A gluten-free diet will help me lose weight.”
This is something I hear from my clients a lot. But for most of us, a gluten-free diet will not cause weight loss, and may even cause weight gain if you begin relying on heavily processed foods.
A gluten-free diet is the right thing to do if you have celiac disease, which affects 1% of the U.S. population, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, affecting 6% of people. For the rest of us, a gluten-free diet is unnecessary, and there is no evidence that eliminating gluten promotes weight loss. Some people may end up losing weight on a gluten-free diet, but this is most often a result of cutting down calories indirectly, OR they may have had pre-existing gluten sensitivity, and the diet alleviates some of the bloating and water retention they were feeling. If you think you have gluten sensitivity, talk to your doctor about testing before you start a gluten-free diet. This will help ensure accurate test results and protect your long-term health.
“So, how come we keep hearing about gluten-free? “
Don’t worry, consumer perceptions are beginning to catch up with the science when it comes to gluten. According to Mintel, a researcher of food industry trends, nearly half of Americans now consider gluten-free diets to be a fad. However, 67% more consumers are eating gluten-free foods than two years ago. Why is this? Perhaps due to misinformation and false promises about what a gluten-free diet can do.
“Okay, okay, so I won’t lose weight, but a gluten-free diet is still healthier, right?”
In the same survey noted above, people indicated that they have grown to believe a gluten-free diet leads to a healthier lifestyle and is a contributing factor to overall well being. While some people also claim a boost of energy once going gluten free, this may be more associated with the possible replacement of gluten foods with more fruits and vegetables. In other words, if someone starts eating a more balanced diet, even if they have eliminated gluten, this may contribute to increased energy, but there is no scientific evidence attributing increased energy to a gluten-free diet.
People that follow a gluten-free diet may also run the risk of nutrition deficiencies due to eliminating whole grains. Grains are good! They can be enriched with folate, thiamin, iron, niacin, riboflavin, selenium, magnesium, calcium, and zinc. Whole grains also have heart protective effects due in large part to fiber. Many people on a gluten-free diet consume insufficient amounts of fiber and may suffer from constipation. In addition to regularity, Fiber is great for management of diabetes and heart, and guess what? It plays a major role in weight reduction!
And here is a little warning… some gluten-free foods may contain higher amounts of calories and carbohydrates. Wheat provides elasticity and stability in a food product. Once that is removed, food companies have to find a substitute, to provide the same qualities. They may use something like rice, tapioca starch, quinoa, buckwheat, or bean flours. As well as fillers like gums, syrups, oils, and starches…all adding to the calories, fat, and carbohydrates levels of the gluten-free products compared to the original food product. So, if you replace gluten with process gluten-free foods, you may do more harm than good.
So what should I do if I want to lose weight and eat right?
Let’s shift the focus away from the gluten-free fad and focus on eating fiber rich fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and protein rich foods to help balance blood sugar, improve satiety, manage weight, and be healthier.
Like I tell my clients, your health is not a passing fad—it is a way of life. What you eat, should be a lifestyle, not a “diet” you follow for a few days or weeks to get overnight results. If you want long-term benefits, look at science-based evidence of what works as far as good health and weight management.
A gluten-free diet is not inherently healthier and is probably not going to help you lose weight.
Lela Iliopoulos is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator and an expert in nutrition therapy, health promotion, and education. She is passionate about impacting nutritional health through the practical application of science-based information