Everything gluten free is on the rise. Anything from bread to muffins, cookies and pizzas can be crafted and served sans gluten these days, and you don’t have to go any further than your local supermarket. A few years ago, for example, gluten-free products were virtually unheard of, and selling them was a prerogative of health food and naturopathic stores.

Today, it is estimated that at least 15% of UK households purchase gluten-free products [1], perceiving those as a healthier alternative, and the numbers are growing steadily. Yet, only 0.5-1% consumers have medical reasons to exclude gluten from the diet [2]. More on the “medical reasons” part later – let us throw in a question first…

So, what is gluten?

If you can answer this question confidently, feel free to scroll down to the next section. Unsure? You’re not alone. It’s remarkable how well marketing and media works – with a little help from those, we are sometimes quick to demonise something and jump to conclusions that aren’t supported by any evidence, without even knowing what exactly we’re talking about.

Addressing this question to American pedestrians who have confirmed they are determined to eliminating gluten from their diets (as it’s “unhealthy”), Jimmy Kimmel has received some very interesting answers, which were combined in a short video for his ABC channel live show.

Replies included “Well it’s actually very sad, but I don’t know…” and “It’s, like…flour…and bread, and pastries”; the rest can be seen below. Not a single person from the poll was able to define what gluten is, precisely.

For the record, gluten is simply a protein composite found in wheat, barley and a variety of other grains. Just that – no less, no more.

Today, we’d like to debunk a few common myths related to gluten consumption and its relation to weight loss to help you make informed, evidence-based educated choices.

How A Gluten Free Diet Actually Contributes To Weight Loss

As we’ve mentioned above, the gluten-free hype is well-fed by false claims and rumours from marketers and some irresponsible health practitioners. How about a cardiologist writing a book about dangers of gluten called “Wheat Belly”[3], possibly one of the worst scientific-like pieces ever put together?

The top two assumed benefits of gluten-free diets are probably “they boost weight loss” and “they increase energy” [3]. Both issues are prevalent, and consumers will often follow any magic single-step solution that promises help, although there is no evidence to support the claims – in fact, for patients with certain conditions, gluten free diets are sometimes used to induce significant weight gain [4]!

And are you, in fact, ready to commit to something so restrictive with so little proven benefits for an average healthy person? Here are a couple of points to consider.

Gluten free diets are daunting and restrictive

What do staples like bread, cereal, oats and pasta have in common? They all contain gluten. Although these days finding gluten free versions of these staples won’t be too much of a problem, ask many people who tried the alternatives – and they will likely frown in disgust. The counterparts often do not taste so good, making you turn towards completely different products!

And even if you manage to replace the staples, you probably don’t realise how many little things you like contain gluten. The reason lies within this protein compound’s natural properties – it gives texture and fluffiness to many baked goods and other products.

How about never touching waffles, puddings, crumbles, as well as many types of muesli and breakfast cereals?

Not only gluten free alternatives often lack proper taste and texture, they are also considerably more expensive due to the more complex production process and costly ingredients that make up for traditional flours and wheat components.

Would be totally worth it, though, if going gluten-free actually helped you achieve weight loss goals. The reality is, however…

Gluten as such does not have anything to do with body weight

Many people making a radical shift from fast food all day long to gluten-free diets do lose considerable amounts of weight. But is gluten the enemy in such instances, or is there actually something else going on?

As you’ve probably guessed, it’s the latter. Think of any typical junk food – and you will likely find it contains gluten. Pizza bases, burger buns, deep-frying batter, cookies, sundaes, cakes…the list goes on indefinitely.

When just starting the gluten free diet, individuals often exclude these items from their diet abruptly, replacing them with foods that are naturally gluten-free. Oddly enough, those happen to be vegetables, fruit and high-fibre grains such as quinoa [5].

Another thing is, once committing to a diet plan of any kind, individuals are likely to pay more attention to food labels in general [5] – as a result, when purchasing processed foods, they will often reach for those lower in fat and sugar.

The down math is simple – the reduction in overall energy intake (often drastic, depending on what was the person’s nutrition like before) leads to weight loss. In other words, it’s just a good old “calories in vs calories out” balance, no evil deeds of gluten involved.

Who Should Go Gluten Free?

By no means are we trying to say gluten free diets are unnecessary for everyone – there is a number of conditions, including a number of serious ones, requiring close moderation of gluten intake or even strict, complete elimination of the substance. You definitely shouldn’t consume gluten…

  • If you have a wheat allergy. Often confused with celiac disease, this condition is actually different. In those allergic to wheat, consumption of wheat-containing products or sometimes simply inhaling flour particles causes antibody production in response to wheat proteins including gluten [6]. The symptoms are unpleasant and include swelling, itching, irritated eyes, difficulty breathing and other typical allergy symptoms, sometimes manifesting in a dangerous, potentially deadly condition called anaphylaxis. Therefore, a gluten-free diet is the safest management option.
  • If you have celiac disease. Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune condition, affecting the small intestine. It is well established that wheat gluten proteins, such as gladin and glutenin, are the main triggers for the condition manifestation [7]. Left unmanaged, the celiac disease leads to malabsorption, malnutrition, unexplained weight loss and severe gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as certain cancers [7].
  • If you have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Often manifesting in symptoms resembling celiac disease, NCGS is a different condition, diagnosed when all the signs and symptoms are present, but the biopsy does not confirm celiac disease. Although there is no conclusive data, it is estimated that NCGS is more prevalent than celiac disease [8]. The best solution for most patients is to avoid gluten completely until the actual cause of sensitivity is determined, which unfortunately may take months and years.

 

If anything listed above applies to you, consult your physician or dietitian to put together an appropriate nutrition management plan.

Should You Go Gluten Free?

So, if you’re planning to lose some weight should you go gluten-free in an absence of the health conditions outlined? Our answer is, there are probably better options. Besides, a gluten free approach may even be misleading – gluten free cookies, slices and cakes are still sugar loaded and won’t bring you any closer to your goal.

Gluten-free does not equal healthy by default, and considering so many different factors and restrictions may quickly get extremely overwhelming.

Perhaps, a less restrictive, healthier approach is a better answer. For instance, high protein nutrition is a scientifically proven and safe weight management strategy [9], especially if implemented under the close supervision of a knowledgeable personal trainer. Remember, getting professional help always pays off in the long run and you can book a free taster session here.

In other words, please do not adopt a diet plan for vanity over health. There is no magic gluten free pill – determination, motivation and a dash of professional advice, and you are unstoppable.

References

  1. Gluten-Free Market Trends. The Gluten-Free Agency, 2012.
  2. Gujral, N., H.J. Freeman, and A.B.R. Thomson, Celiac disease: Prevalence, diagnosis, pathogenesis and treatment. World Journal of Gastroenterology : WJG, 2012. 18(42): p. 6036-6059.
  3. Davis, V., Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health. 2011, Rodale Books: Emmaus, PA, USA.
  4. Talaie, R., Does gluten free diet have more implications than treatment of celiac disease? Gastroenterology and Hepatology From Bed to Bench, 2015. 8(2): p. 160-166.
  5. The Reality Behind Gluten-Free Diets. 2011.
  6. MayoClinic Wheat Allergy. 2014.
  7. Shewry, P.R. and S.J. Hey, Do we need to worry about eating wheat? Nutrition Bulletin / Bnf, 2016. 41(1): p. 6-13.
  8. DiGiacomo, D.V., et al., Prevalence of gluten-free diet adherence among individuals without celiac disease in the USA: results from the Continuous National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009-2010. Scand J Gastroenterol, 2013. 48(8): p. 921-5.
  9. Layman, D.K., et al., A reduced ratio of dietary carbohydrate to protein improves body composition and blood lipid profiles during weight loss in adult women. J Nutr, 2003. 133(2): p. 411-7.