Unless you have spent the past three years vacationing out of the galaxy, you have heard about the gluten-free diet. Maybe you’ve tried it, maybe you’re even on it. It seems like everyone is “going gluten free” these days….but why? Well, there are a variety of likely reasons. For starters, the increase in testing and diagnosing of celiac disease (a gluten intolerance) as well as increased data proving the validity of removing gluten from the diet in certain disease states. There is growing research suggesting there may be improvement in symptoms of certain autoimmune disorders such as lupus, irritable bowel syndrome, type I diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis when gluten is taken out of the diet. The release of popular books such as “Wheat Belly” written by William Davis in which he claims you will lose weight by removing gluten from your diet has given people reason to think twice about ingesting this demon in the bread basket. As a professional, I must evaluate all claims by turning to science, research, and evidence. I will scour medical and nutritional journals reading the latest research and scientific studies proving or disproving claims. In some cases, like coconut oil for instance, the body of evidence is simply too small to make a true conclusion as to the benefits. However, it is pretty clear the role of gluten and our health. I will explain later.
For those of us who aren’t familiar with gluten, think BROW- Barley, Rye, Oats, and Wheat. These are the four grains that should be avoided on this diet. Now what exactly is gluten? It is a protein comprised of glutenin and gliadin found in the endosperm of the grain. In most plants, the endosperm supplies protein and nutrients for the plant to grow and thrive. This is essentially gluten’s job for these grains. In baking and bread making, gluten provides elasticity and structure. It gives bread its shape and assists in the rising of dough. If the gluten is overworked, it will give cakes and bread and a tougher texture. For a chewy piece of French bread, this is perfect, but you certainly don’t want a tough and chewy cupcake. Bakers are very much aware of gluten’s role and adjust their recipes accordingly. Seems reasonable and pretty innocent, right? Well, there lies the controversy.
For patients with celiac disease, gluten ingestion can be debilitating. It shortens the microvilli in the small intestine. In a normal small bowel, these finger-like projections stand tall and collect and absorb nutrients passing through. If the microvilli are shortened, many nutrients cannot be absorbed. An otherwise healthy person may end up extremely malnourished due to this disease. Doctors check for celiac disease by first taking a blood sample and testing for certain antibodies that will be present in celiac disease. Because this is not a 100% reliable method, an intestinal biopsy is needed to confirm the findings. There is also evidence of gluten sensitivity in people that experience negative symptoms when ingesting gluten, yet do not have celiac disease. By removing gluten from the diet, their overall health status is much improved.
Given the popularity of the gluten-free diet, and the controversy that it brings, much research has been conducted on this topic- here is that whole evidenced-based practice thing I mentioned earlier. Without a doubt, it is more than clear that those suffering from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should remove gluten from their diet…But what about the rest of us? Gluten-free items are popping up in mainstream stores and selling like hotcakes. Claims of weight loss scream from the headlines. So does it work? ….Sorry peeps, but judging from scientific literature, the answer is NO. For those of us without gluten sensitivity, there is little research demonstrating that going gluten-free will improve our lifestyle or allow for weight loss. In fact, there is some evidence pointing to an increase in weight when gluten is removed from the diet. This is due to one of two possibilities. First, if the individual truly has gluten sensitivity, removing gluten from their diet allows for increased absorption of nutrients and thus increased calorie intake. The second possible reason for weight gain is the increase in consumption of gluten-free products like baked goods, cake and cookie mixes, and frozen meals that are growing in the marketplace now. When you look closely at the ingredient lists and nutrition labels, most of the time you will see these products are actually much higher in calories, fat, and/or sodium when compared to their gluteny counterparts. Many are not aware of this and have a free-for-all in the gluten-free aisle, chowing down like these baked goods are going out of style.
Now what about those that actually do lose weight? These individuals may have a sensitivity that they are not aware of or has not been diagnosed. This weight loss may be caused by a decrease in the inflammation that the individual is carrying around due to an immune response. The second possibility is that if on a gluten-free diet, he or she may simply be paying more attention to what they are eating. Sure you will lose weight if you are scarfing bagels, pancakes, French baguettes, scones and muffins for breakfast and then decide change to a slice of rice bread toast and fruit. I have found that many eat more healthfully, adding in more fruit and vegetables to their diets and less bread and baked goods when on a gluten-free diet.
The bottom line – current research demonstrates there is no reason to remove gluten from your diet if you do not have an autoimmune disease, celiac disease, gluten or wheat sensitivity. Will it hurt you to try out the gluten-free diet, just for fun? No, as long as you don’t take in more than you burn off, as that will result in weight gain. Will you lose weight by going gluten-free? Not by that alone. You will lose weight by decreasing the smorgasbord of pastries and increasing your fruit and vegetable intake. So put down the cupcake and pick up the carrot!
For questions or to request a blog topic, please email me at Bryee@TastefulWisdom.com