Today’s post is going to be about a somewhat controversial topic: Gluten. Will a gluten free diet help you lose weight? What do you do if you have symptoms of gluten intolerance? What is gluten and where is it found? Gluten is an increasingly popular topic, and this post is to clear up any confusion.
First let’s define gluten. Gluten is a protein found in certain grains, like wheat, that is not completely broken down by the body. For most people, the leftover protein passes through the gastrointestinal tract, no harm no foul. In some cases, however, gluten wreaks havoc on the person’s system. The body recognizes the protein as foreign, and then initiates an autoimmune response mediated by “immunoglobulins”, which are simply the body’s usual way of fighting infection. This causes actual damage to happen to the intestinal lining. This disease process is known as celiac disease. This disease can even go undiagnosed, but if a doctor was ever to look inside the person’s stomach and intestines, there would be considerable inflammation and malabsorption occurring. About 1% of the population has celiac disease, many of whom are undiagnosed due to few or absent symptoms.
There’s a growing trend in medicine, however. Many people do not have official “celiac disease”, but may have gluten sensitivity. No test exists to diagnose this condition yet; it is usually diagnosed by completing a gluten free diet trial and then monitoring symptom improvement. This condition may be present in up to 6% of the population, many undiagnosed.
If you have any GI symptoms, the most important thing you can do is bring it to your doctor’s attention. There are many potential causes of GI distress. Don’t attempt a gluten free diet on your own. One of the reasons for this is if you actually do have celiac disease, it is impossible to diagnose if you are already following a gluten free diet. The diagnosis is important itself because you will need to be followed by a GI doctor and see a Dietitian in order to help you navigate food labels to follow this difficult diet. This is the only way, though, that you will see your symptoms improve.
So what about a gluten free diet for general health or weight loss? This is not advised. Gluten-Free has become a tag-line that companies use to try to sell products because many people associate them with being healthy. According to one article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “between 2004 and 2011 the market for gluten-free products grew at a compound annual rate of 28%, with annual sales expected to reach $2.6 billion in 2012.” Unfortunately this is a marketing tool and not really a sign of a product being healthier. Many gluten-free products are actually higher in calories, refined grains, and sugars. You can take the wheat out of something, but if it still has other flours made out of grains that have been refined, that is no better than white flour if you don’t have a gluten intolerance or sensitivity.
If you are thinking about following a gluten-free diet for weight loss, think again. In one study of adults with celiac disease, 82% of overweight patients gained weight on the gluten-free diet. Granted, they probably felt a lot better and so were eating more, but there is also no evidence that strict gluten-free diets will support weight loss in any healthy individual.
There is also some evidence that a gluten free diet may be harmful for those without gluten intolerance. This is because some of the compounds in whole grain wheat have shown to proliferate a healthy gut flora, or the bacteria naturally present in your gut that help your immune system and to keep your bowel habits regular.
So, here’s a recap as well as my sources. Gluten free diet: helpful for those with gluten intolerance and sensitivity. Make sure you follow your doctor’s guidance and discuss symptoms with him/her before making dietary changes; not helpful for those simply wanting to make a dietary change to improve health or lose weight.