Q: A co-worker of mine was diagnosed with gluten intolerance about a year ago and started a gluten-free diet. Since then she’s lost about 20 pounds. I’ve tried lots of different diets over the years, all of which have failed, so now I’m thinking about going gluten-free to lose some weight. What do you think? -Beverly; Lincoln, NE
A: I’m glad you’re doing your homework on this topic Beverly. As it happens, a lot of people are adopting gluten-free diets for weight loss these days. They think that gluten-free food is somehow healthier than other processed foods and that misconception is fueled by the fact that many celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Gwyneth Paltrow have glommed on to the trend.
So here’s a little background to help you make an informed decision. Gluten is a protein that is found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley, as well as certain food additives. It helps gives baked goods such as bread, pizza dough, and cookies their chewiness and elasticity. Gluten-free diets are prescribed for people with celiac disease (characterized by an intestine-damaging immune response to the protein, suffered by about 1% of the population) or gluten sensitivity (characterized by gastrointestinal symptoms such as chronic bloating and gas, diagnosed in around 10% of the population).
Eliminating gluten may help some people lose weight, but this is generally the result of the shunning of high-calorie, over-processed junk foods such as chips, cookies, pizza, and candy. Avoiding these types of foods is absolutely beneficial for weight loss. The problem is that gluten-free diets are also lacking in many essential nutrients such as calcium, iron, zinc, folate, and niacin – not to mention fiber – found in a healthy food diet. Gluten-free dieters must cook with naturally gluten-free grain such as buckwheat and quinoa. And, of course, they have to purchase gluten-free processed foods, which tend to be pricier than their counterparts.
You should also know that some people following gluten-free diets also tend to gain weight. Their thinking is that “gluten-free” is somehow synonymous with “low-calorie,” and as a result they tend to overeat. They don’t realize that a gluten-free cookie packs the same number of calories – as well as the unhealthy fats and sugars – found in its regular counterpart.
As an alternative to a gluten-free diet for weight loss, my recommendation is that you simply adopt a healthy, well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables as well as lean protein, low-fat dairy and whole grains. Cut back on your intake of refined carbs and highly processed foods, and substitute regular or flavored water for sugary drinks. Last but not least, be sure to incorporate more physical activity into your day. You know my mantra – When you’re moving, you’re improving. That’s a guarantee!