Among all the fad diets that this world has to offer, one that is growing in popularity is that of a gluten-free diet. It is not shocking to find out that a new celebrity, athlete, or neighbor has discovered that they have gluten intolerance; now allowing them to fit into their skinny jeans and run a marathon. Claims of weight loss and increased energy levels identify the gluten-free diet, making it no surprise that people of all dietary needs are experimenting with this way of eating. So what are the benefits? Are there any? While the media may suggest that gluten-free diets provide extraordinary health benefits, it is wise to take a step back and see the reality of what eliminating gluten does for the body.
What is Gluten? Probably something terrible…right??
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, gluten is a “general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale. It helps food maintain their shape, acting as a glue that holds food together.” Put simply, gluten is a protein. It’s a natural part of our food and shouldn’t be something to be scared of.
Gluten is not contraindicated unless an individual has been properly diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Celiac disease affects about 1 in every 100 people worldwide. This disease is an autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten causes an unfavorable immune response in the small intestine. The only effective way to treat celiac disease is through a gluten free diet. Those who have celiac disease are relieved from their symptoms once they transition to the gluten-free lifestyle.
Through the years, misconceptions have warped the purpose of gluten-free diets; causing people without any gluten intolerance to feel the need to go gluten-free. The excessive claims made by advertisers and nutrition quacks are to blame.
Increased Energy – Yes please!
It has been advertised that a diet without gluten will help boost energy levels. Athletes are especially prone to favor this claim. Many self-diagnose themselves as gluten-intolerant in an effort to have a greater ability to complete workouts and recover as fast as possible. There is not enough evidence to support this claim in non-celiac disease athletes.
Individuals living a gluten-free lifestyle may experience increased energy levels on account of their increased awareness of the food they use to fuel themselves. Many foods containing gluten are sources of empty calories such as: chips, cookies, and crackers. Replacing these foods with more nutrient-dense food sources (fruits, vegetables, whole grains without gluten) will lead to greater energy levels due to the high quality source of fuel available for the body. So while the claims of increased energy may be true, the cause of that boost cannot be traced directly to the elimination of gluten.
Weight Loss – So that’s what’s been holding me back…
Many individuals have testified that going gluten-free has helped them shed extra pounds, yet according to Glenn A. Gaesser, there is no evidence that weight loss can be attributed to the elimination of gluten. There are other factors, associated with a gluten-free diet, which may contribute to this misunderstanding. For instance, individuals looking for a quick gluten-free snack may be more likely to choose an apple over a slice of leftover cake. Replacing high calorie/processed foods with fruits and vegetables will naturally lead to an overall decrease in caloric intake, which will contribute to weight loss. When people go gluten-free, those individuals become more conscious of the labels on their food. As people pay closer attention to what they are putting in their body, they are more likely to make healthier choices.
Individuals with celiac disease who follow a strict gluten-free diet have a tendency to have lower BMIs, fat mass, and lean mass levels then the average population. This isn’t necessarily a positive statistic because many individuals with celiac disease suffer from malabsorption of many important nutrients. This can lead to stunted growth and various nutrient deficiencies; yet due to the popular definition of beauty, the appearance of malnourishment can be desirable. Just because an individual loses weight while following a gluten-free diet does not mean that you can accurately associate that weight loss with the elimination of gluten.
In some cases, individuals may experience more negative side effects then positive ones when following a strict gluten-free diet. Eliminating foods with gluten puts individuals at greater risk for developing deficiencies in the following nutrients: iron, calcium, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and folate. Fiber and healthy strings of bacteria can be difficult to obtain in sufficient quantities. Whether or not a product contains gluten does not determine the health value of that food; many foods vital to a balanced diet contain gluten.
Putting it all together
While there are pronounced benefits of gluten-free diets for individuals who have been properly diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten-intolerance, there are no indications that this is a diet for people of all dietary needs. Claims of increased energy levels and weight loss can be attributed to factors other then the actual elimination of gluten from the diet. There are risk factors that many individuals neglect to factor into their decision of whether or not they should try the gluten-free diet. For individuals that don’t suffer from celiac disease, gluten should be an essential part of a balanced and varied diet.