Is gluten-free diet smart for weight loss?
The MSU Food and Nutrition Association dispels popular nutrition myths
Editor’s Note: Views expressed in guest columns and letters to the editor reflect the views of the author, not the views of The State News.
For many of us, aromatic baked breads and scrumptiously prepared pastries are comforting delights. Yet for those who possess an autoimmune disorder called celiac disease, the consumption of these foods can trigger a wide range of unpleasant symptoms, including diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating.
Celiac disease is defined as a condition that results in unpleasant and potentially serious responses to gluten, the protein found in wheat and other grains that gives dough its tough elastic texture.
Recently, the media has placed a negative connotation on gluten. It has become the poster child of foods to avoid in order to promote weight loss.
Many consumers have embraced this concept and have begun excluding gluten from their regular diets. This includes the well-known Miley Cyrus, who is fighting rumors of an eating disorder by trying to say that she has a gluten and lactose allergy.
Earlier this year, she tweeted, “It’s not about the weight, it’s about the health.”
She went on to say she does not consider gluten to have any value anyway.
Interestingly enough, the calories contained in a gluten-free food item and its standard counterpart, which contains gluten, are usually the same. The replacement of a regular cupcake with a gluten-free cupcake does not make it more nutritious unless there is a negative reaction to the gluten.
With similar caloric ratios, the swap will prove no better an option in the effort to lose weight.
The correlation between weight loss and gluten is misinterpreted; many articles promoting gluten-free diets as a means of aiding weight loss are not evidence-based, and the credentials of the authors also are often questionable. Readers might therefore be misinformed.
It is not recommended that a gluten-free diet be followed unless it had been prescribed by a health care professional.
Tricia Thompson, a registered dietician and an internationally recognized expert on celiac disease and gluten-free diets, states, “If you don’t have a medical reason for following a gluten-free diet, there’s probably no benefit.”
So even if Miley Cyrus is suffering from celiac or nonceliac gluten sensitivity, her smaller figure is most likely a result of regular exercise and careful eating.
Many Americans are trying to jump on board with this new fad, as currently 1.6 million are following a gluten-free diet without the celiac diagnosis.
But only 1 percent of the population in the United States has celiac disease, and about 10 percent have sensitivity.
According to Annals of Internal Medicine, clinicians don’t have enough evidence to conclude a gluten-free diet eliminates symptoms in patients who don’t have celiac disease. They say people believe they feel better on a gluten-free diet because of the popularity of gluten-free eating and the endorsements from celebrities. They now try to do a double-blind taste test where patients try two different diets not knowing which one is gluten-free and which one contains gluten.
In addition to the potential lack of benefits resulting from a gluten-free diet, if it is not necessary or medically justified, one also should consider its potential drawbacks of incorporating the diet into regular eating habits.
For example, when gluten-free products are substituted without medical need, an increase in deficiencies of some nutrients — such as iron, zinc, calcium, folate, niacin and fiber — can be compromised. These commonly are found in whole-grain products containing gluten.
Also, gluten-free products are expensive and not easily attainable, especially for college students on limited budgets. When economics plays a huge importance on grocery budgets, buying these products without a real need is likely a bad investment.
It is safe to say that avoiding gluten is not the holy grail of weight loss. Any correlation between weight loss after implementing a gluten-free diet should not be tied specifically to the effects of removing gluten from one’s diet, but rather to the heightened awareness of the consumer food intake while making these alterations.
If weight loss is desired by the general public not afflicted by celiac disease, the best recommendation would be to monitor overall caloric intake, increase physical activity and to incorporate whole, unprocessed foods into the diet whenever possible.
Make an appointment with a local registered dietitian if you would like more information about this subject. Also, you may find more facts about gluten or information about how to contact a registered dietitian at eatright.org or eatrightmich.org.
The MSU Food and Nutrition Association is a pre-professional club composed primarily of Dietetic students and Food and Nutritional Science majors. Joanna Bahri, Stephanie Send, Carolyn Hofner, and Ashley Bittinger contributed to this column.