Should you go gluten-free?

As part of my weight management Lunch ‘n Learn seminars, I spotlight my personal list of the worst diets to follow. I get a lot of questions about fad diets, and I think it’s important to set the record straight as to why most of these diets are neither safe nor effective in promoting weight loss.  Several people have spoken to me about going gluten-free in order to lose weight, as they’ve heard that friends or celebrities have had success with this diet.  In reality, most doctors and nutritionists recommend against going gluten-free, unless it’s medically necessary to do so.

Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, rye, and spelt.  It gives food made with these grains a unique texture, but for some people it can cause a serious reaction.  Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which a person’s body negatively reacts to even a small amount of gluten, causing severe stomach upset, joint problems, depression, or even intestinal cancer.  The only treatment for celiac disease is complete elimination of all gluten-containing foods.  Gluten sensitivity is a less-serious problem in which the ingestion of gluten can cause digestive upset, but usually no lasting damage.  I liken this to lactose intolerance, in that eating gluten foods can be uncomfortable, but not dangerous to one’s health.  People with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity are really the only ones who need to avoid gluten products.

For the rest of us, going gluten-free is probably not going to have any major positive changes on our health, especially when it comes to weight loss.  In fact, many people on gluten-free diets often gain weight!  There are several reasons for this:  gluten-free foods are often higher in fat, sugar, and calories than their gluten-containing counterparts.  They are  usually made with refined carbohydrates, which cause unstable blood sugar levels that may lead to overeating.  In addition, it’s very easy for gluten-free diets to become too high in protein and fat (and, therefore, calories) due to the elimination of many major sources of carbohydrates. 

There are other, non-weight loss downsides to going gluten-free.  Gluten-free foods are often expensive, so a gluten-free diet can be very costly.  Also, many gluten-free products are lacking in the nutrients that are found in most gluten-containing foods, including B vitamins, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and magnesium, so it’s non uncommon for someone on a gluten-free diet to have several nutrient deficiencies.

The bottom line:  unless a gluten-free diet is carefully planned out, it’s very easy to consume more calories, and fewer key nutrients, neither of which are beneficial to weight loss or overall health.  Unless your doctor specifically tells you that you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, you should probably consider a different strategy for losing weight.

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