The Reality Behind Gluten-Free Diets
A lifelong gluten-free diet is necessary for those who suffer from celiac disease, also referred to as celiac sprue, non-topical sprue, and gluten-sensitive enteropathy.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine lining and prevents absorption of nutrients from foods that are consumed. The damage is due to a reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats.
Symptoms of celiac disease include gas, diarrhea, stomach pain, fatigue, joint pain, weight loss, and skin rashes. There are no medications or surgeries that can cure celiac disease, therefore following a life-long gluten-free diet is necessary.
The gluten-free diet has become popular among celebrities and has gained much media attention due to the claim of weight loss and boost in energy levels. It seems as if many are beginning to associate the gluten-free diet with weight loss rather than the medical condition for which it is prescribed.
There is no scientific evidence to show that eliminating gluten promotes weight loss. Many gluten-free products may have the same, if not more calories than products with gluten. Often times, gluten-free products have added sugar or fat mixed into the substitute flour to make the item more palatable leading to higher calories.
The Reality Behind Gluten-Free Diet Claims
Two popular claims of a gluten-free diet are weight loss and increased energy, but there may be other reasons why individuals experience those benefits.
Some claim they experience weight loss once initiating the gluten-free diet. Yes, some individuals may lose weight when beginning the gluten-free diet, but it depends on what foods they use to replace gluten-containing foods. For example, replacing wheat flour with potato starch will not result in weight loss, but replacing white bread with quinoa or another high-fiber grain may.
When beginning the gluten-free diet, individuals may decrease their total intake of processed foods and increase their intake of fruits and vegetables. Any weight loss can be achieved by eliminating high-calorie and high-fat foods, even if they are or are not gluten-free.
Once initiating the gluten-free diet, one must closely pay attention to food labels. It is known that when individuals are more aware of what they are consuming they tend to make healthier options, which can then lead to weight loss.
Sufferers of celiac disease are often thin, which may lead others to think that they are thin from eating gluten-free foods. In reality, they often are thin due to problems with malabsorption associated with the disease.
Some claim that they experience increased energy levels once adopting the gluten-free diet. An explanation for this claim may be that the individual is consuming more fruits and vegetables, rather than high-calorie and high-fat processed foods. When someone begins consuming a healthy, well-balanced diet they may feel that they have more energy, no matter if they are or are not eliminating gluten. No studies were found showing that eliminating gluten leads to increased energy levels.
The Risks of a Gluten-Free Diet
There are risks involved with following a gluten-free diet; therefore it is not recommended for everyone.
Avoiding grains on the gluten-free diet means that you are eating fewer products enriched with nutrients, which may lead to deficiencies in iron, calcium, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and folate.
Along with fruits and vegetables, the most common sources of dietary fiber are whole-grain breads and cereals, which contain gluten. Many people on gluten-free diets tend to eat inadequate amounts of fiber, which may lead to constipation.
Following a gluten-free diet may potentially cause a decrease in the amount of beneficial bacteria in the gut (Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus), which can negatively impact the immune system.
Another negative aspect regarding the gluten-free diet is cost. Gluten-free products tend to be more expensive than gluten-containing products. Gluten-free products may be lacking in variety or may not be as accessible as gluten-containing products in some grocery stores. Gluten may also be found in cosmetics, lotions, shampoos, and medications.
Adopting the gluten-free diet is not an easy change. It takes time and dedication. You must pay close attention to food labels. If products state that they are "gluten-free", it means that the manufacturer guarantees that there is no gluten in that food item. If a product does not have a "gluten-free" claim then you must contact the manufacturer directly.
If you have not been diagnosed with celiac disease, it is not recommended that you follow a gluten-free diet. Contact your physician and meet with a Registered Dietitian if you are seeking a healthy and effective weight loss plan. If you suspect that you may have intolerance to gluten or have been diagnosed with celiac disease, contact your physician and meet with a Registered Dietitian to ensure that you are meeting all of your nutrition needs.
1. ADA Nutrition Care Manual. Weight Loss. http://nutritioncaremanual.org/vault/editor/Docs/WtMgmt_WeightLossTips_FINAL.pdf. Accessed February 1, 2011.
2. Celiac disease. ADA Nutrition Care Manual. http://nutritioncaremanual.org/topic.cfm?ncm_heading=Nutrition%20Care&ncm_toc_id=22684. Accessed January 26, 2011
3. Loftus CG, et al. Celiac disease. American College of Gastroenterology. http://www.acg.gi.org/patient/gihealth/celiac.asp. Accessed February 1, 2011
4. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Nutrition and healthy eating: Gluten-Free Diet. Accessed February 1, 2011.
5. National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Dietitian takes on gluten-free weight loss rumors. http://www.celiaccentral.org/News/News-Feeds/Celiac-in-the-News/Celiac-in-the-News/161/pg__1/vobId__4303/. Accessed February 1, 2011.
6. Palma GD, Nadal I et al (2009). Effects of a gluten-free diet on gut microbiota and immune function in healthy adult human subjects. British Journal of Nutrition. 102(8): 1154-60.
7. Rossi, M., & Schwartz, K (2010). Celiac disease and intestinal bacteria: not only gluten? Journal of Leukocyte Biology. 87: 749-51.
8. Thompson, T., Lee, A., and Thomas, G. (2010). Gluten Contamination of Grains, Seeds, and Flours in the United States: A Pilot Study. 110, 937-940.