Gluten Free Diet vs Gluten Free Dieting
With celebrities promoting weight loss through a gluten free diet and books like 'Wheat Belly' spouting off weak theories about how wheat and gluten are the root cause of all obesity-related health issues, it's no wonder the general population is confused. Confused about what to eat, what to limit and what is truly healthy for our bodies. In this blog, I want to bring to light what gluten really is and discuss nutrients that may be lacking if one proceeds on a gluten free diet without the appropriate knowledge.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is the natural protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It functions to give grains their texture and it adds nutritional value to the diet.
Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance
For people diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called celiac disease, gluten damages the lining of the small intestine and can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Symptoms may include: abdominal pain, diarrhea or constipation, joint pain and migraines. Other people can also develop a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which causes similar symptoms but doesn’t lead to the nutritional deficiencies. Either way, the only treatment for both celiac disease and gluten sensitivity is a gluten-free diet for life in order to reduce discomfort, symptoms, nutritional deficiencies and risks for cancer of the gastrointestinal tract, but nothing to do with weight loss.
What Foods Contain Gluten?
Bread, pasta, processed meat, some soup bases, condiments – anything containing traces of wheat, rye or barley contain gluten. Someone with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity will experience severe side effects from all of these products.
Gluten and Weight Loss
Processed gluten free foods are often higher in sugar and fat to improve the taste and palatability of gluten free products. Because of this, many people with celiac disease struggle with weight gain, so I find the gluten free diet weight loss trend very ironic. Individuals have claimed that they lost weight on a gluten free diet. Is the weight loss actually due to elimination of gluten? Or could it be due to: a) the sudden attention that one gives to what they are eating (i.e. less mindless eating); b) reduction of the portion size of grains (or complete elimination), which are often over-consumed anyway and c) individuals making healthier, leaner choices when eating out. For example, ordering unbattered meat/fish/poultry and a side of veggies over a large portion of pasta?? Cutting out gluten means cutting out high fat foods like burgers (or at least the white bun), doughnuts and muffins so it’s no wonder people may experience a better sense of wellbeing. There is no evidence to suggest that gluten is causing overweight and obesity. Did we forget that our every-day environments (workplace, institutions, shopping, leisure, roadways, libraries, coffee shops, etc.) are inundated with refined convenience food, sugary beverages and quick fixes? Not to mention our lack of priority for cooking skills and basic food preparation - but that I'll save for another day.
Is a Gluten Free Diet Harmful?
No. Avoiding gluten is not, in itself, harmful to the human body. However, if a gluten free diet is not carefully planned, nutrients such as iron (especially for vegetarian/vegan diets), B vitamins, vitmamin E and dietary fibre (all key nutrients that improve overall health and well-being) can be lacking. One cannot, healthfully, eat a gluten free diet AND avoid grains altogether. This is where we look at weight loss claims and think to ourselves, "is this just another low carbohydrate diet being promoted?". A healthy gluten free diet will incorporate appropriate gluten free WHOLE grains.
So What's the Bottom Line?
if you would like to trial a gluten free diet, go for it! But do it for the right reasons and ensure you're still eating nutrient-rich foods. To support weight loss and wellbeing, whether you follow a gluten free diet or not, my advice is:
1) Choose whole grains – gluten free whole grains include: brown or wild rice, buckwheat, quinoa, pure uncontaminated oats and breads made with legume flours and brown/wild rice flours.
2) Eat beans, peas and lentils for additional fibre and protein which are also very filling and help curb the appetite.
3) Reduce your intake of processed foods that contain added sugars and/or fat.
4) Aim to include at least 3 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruit every day.
5) Drink water or low fat milk or alternatives as the best way to hydrate yourself.