The Gluten-Free Diet: Is it right for you?
Gluten-free eating is getting much attention lately. It seems that every grocery store is stocked with gluten-free items, celebrities are endorsing the gluten-free lifestyle, and athletes claim that gluten-free eating has improved their performance (most recently, tennis player Novak Djokovic, James Starks of the Green Bay Packers, and Kyle Korver of the Chicago Bulls).
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye (oats may also contain gluten due to processing contamination, unless specifically labeled "gluten-free"). The obvious food sources are breads, pastas, cookies and cakes. Less obvious sources include soups, salad dressings, beer, soy sauce, processed deli meats, imitation seafood, communion wafers, toothpaste, prescription medications, vitamin/mineral supplements, and many packaged foods.
For some people, eating gluten-free isn’t a choice, it's a necessity. Celiac disease is an auto- immune disorder in which gluten causes damage to the small intestine. Symptoms include abdominal pain, malnutrition, anemia, diarrhea and chronic fatigue. One in 133 Americans are affected each year, though only about 3-5% are diagnosed. Gluten intolerance, on the other hand, causes undesirable symptoms when gluten is consumed but no damage is done to the small intestine; this condition affects as much as 10% of the population.
What about those who do not have celiac disease or gluten intolerance?
The gluten-free diet has become popular with people looking to lose weight. Elisabeth Hasselbeck, from the television talk show The View, endorses gluten-free products and is the author of The G-Free Diet, which promotes the gluten-free lifestyle for those with celiac disease and those wishing to lose weight. It appears that going gluten-free is the latest fad. But does it work?
Gluten is not the enemy and does not directly cause weight gain; removing it from your diet will not have a magical effect. However, if you decide to go gluten-free, you have a great opportunity to replace processed (and gluten-containing) foods in your diet with healthier options. By limiting gluten-containing foods you may be overeating, such as breads and pastas, and replacing them with vegetables and gluten-free whole grains, you may naturally lose weight by eating fewer calories. However, more commercially prepared gluten-free products are becoming available. Be aware that processed gluten-free foods do not mean lower calorie or more nutritious. For example, Glutino pretzels (a popular gluten-free brand) contain an additional 30 calories, 5 grams of fat, 2.5 grams of saturated fat, and less dietary fiber and protein compared with the Rold Gold version, based on similar serving sizes.
When gluten is removed, something else is usually added to achieve a similar taste and texture. For gluten-free processed foods and snacks, this may mean adding fat and other preservatives. If you are trying to lose weight, gluten-free does not mean the food can be eaten in unlimited quantities! You may also notice that gluten-free foods have a significant price difference; their cost is almost always higher. For example, Rold Gold pretzels typically sell for $2.99 (per one- pound bag) and Glutino pretzels sell for $7.99 for a slightly smaller bag—a huge difference!
Make it work for you
Whether or not the gluten-free diet will help you lose weight, have more energy, or feel better depends on how you do it. If you reduce processed foods in your diet and choose whole foods (fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, nuts) then you will likely find success on this diet. However, if you replace all of the snacks, desserts, and pastas you currently eat with gluten-free versions, then you may not improve your health and may even gain weight, since gluten-free products tend to contain more fat and additives.
The gluten-free diet is also often low in certain nutrients including iron, calcium, vitamin D and B vitamins. Watch the quality of your diet to ensure that it is meeting your nutrient needs. Good sources of gluten-free whole grains are quinoa, brown rice, amaranth, soy flour, millet, corn, sorghum, and teff (make sure to buy those labeled “gluten-free”). If you choose to adopt a gluten-free lifestyle, I encourage you to experiment with all of the different grains and flours that are available, and rely less upon packaged, processed foods.
Note that if you have a confirmed diagnosis of celiac disease, you can claim the price difference spent for gluten-free items on your tax return—see information at www.celiac.com. If you believe you may have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, it is important to see your physician before beginning a gluten-free diet. Diagnostic testing for celiac disease requires gluten levels to be present in the patient’s blood.
Emily Blessing is the LIS/Client Services Supervisor in the Brigham and Women's Faulkner Hospital laboratory. Blessing is currently pursuing her Master's degree in Food and Nutrition at Framingham State University.