Indeed, this trend in eating gluten-free foods is a phenomenon to dieting just as mysterious as the trend in CrossFit is to exercise. First a little background. Gluten consists of several proteins present in many grains (e.g., wheat, barley, rye, oats) which provides texture to foods such as breads, cakes, muffins, and pasta but has very little nutritional value. Most people are able to digest the proteins which make up gluten although there are some who either have an autoimmune condition known as celiac disease or have an allergic reaction (gluten sensitivity) to these proteins which prevents nutrient digestion. Celiac disease, an immune disorder affecting about one percent of Americans, causes the development of antibodies which attack the body's intestinal tract, preventing the absorption of the proteins as well as calcium and iron. Symptoms include chronic diarrhea, intermittent constipation, bloating, abdominal cramps, irritability, anemia, loss of appetite, and weight loss. Gluten sensitivity, on the other hand, has been estimated to affect about six percent of Americans and is due to a lack of intestinal enzymes needed to properly digest the proteins which comprise gluten. Of course the treatment for celiac disease and gluten sensitivity is to eat a gluten-free diet.
The intention to eat gluten-free foods may be considered smart since most foods which contain gluten are refined-processed foods with very little nutritional value. But I suspect most people avoid gluten-containing foods not because of low nutritional quality but instead due to a psychological phobia towards gluten. In other words, they believe they are allergic to gluten but in reality this is not the case. The media may be to blame for this unnecessary scare because it has perpetuated the myth that eating wheat may become addictive and make you fat. Moreover, eating wheat may cause an increased risk of certain systemic diseases (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, osteoporosis, etc.). There is no conclusive evidence to indicate eating wheat may make you fat and/or cause chronic health problems.
The recommendation is to eat more whole wheat and less refined wheat to lessen any possible risk of incurring chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Good substitutes to gluten-containing wheat, barley, and oat foods are buckwheat, corn, rice, and quinoa. Quinoa, in particular, is a superb substitute since it is a complete protein, meaning that it contains all of the essential amino acids. Quinoa can be cooked just like rice.
BOTTOM LINE: There's no conclusive evidence that eating gluten-free foods is healthier and can effectively cause weight loss. In fact, many gluten-free foods are higher in calories than their regular counterparts. The weight lost from eating gluten-free foods is likely due to eating less refined carbs rather than gluten itself. Since many gluten-free foods are made of refined flour, they lack the fiber found in whole-wheat foods that can aid in weight control. Moreover, wheat gluten may actually have health benefits (e.g., decreases triglyceride levels, provides beneficial intestinal bacteria). Unless you have been diagnosed as having celiac disease or are gluten intolerant, there is no reason to avoid all wheat products. Instead, switch to 100% whole-grain foods and eat less processed foods (e.g., cakes, cookies, pizza, etc.). If you feel better from cutting out gluten foods in your diet, it's most likely due to eating less refined carbs rather than from eliminating gluten.
Brian Danley, CFT
"Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going."
Subscribe to get the latest blog content:
I'm a personal trainer who loves to help others fulfill their health and fitness goals. I consider myself a bodybuilder in that I live the lifestyle of eating healthy food, working out regularly, and sculpting my body.