You’ll never guess my surprise when Maureen McCormick of Marcia, Marcia, Marcia fame (hey, I’ve had to live with that a long time, even though she spells it wrong) announced in commercials for the upcoming season of Dancing with the Stars that her newfound body size was due to cutting out gluten.
Well, maybe you would guess if you are familiar with my dismay over nutrition advice from those who don’t really understand nutrition.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that some of us have serious problems with gluten. But I cringe when I hear broad statements that imply, without any qualifications, that cutting out gluten can solve weight issues.
I know, it’s the dietitian in me.
But to back me up, a study recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that the numbers of people following a gluten-free diet had more than tripled in recent years — a statistic that doesn’t reflect an increased prevalence of celiac disease.
Many of these folks may be dealing with gluten sensitivity, a relatively controversial subject that researchers haven’t quite figured out yet.
Still, if you go by the confusion we hear from participants at Green Mountain, it’s likely much of the increase comes from the desire to find something that will help a person lose weight and keep it off, not from any gastrointestinal or other problems they may be experiencing that are commonly associated with gluten.
First, a word from our sponsor
To be absolutely clear, at Green Mountain at Fox Run, we don’t encourage anyone to do anything just to lose weight. A focus on weight loss often leads to unhealthy attitudes and behaviors that cause us to gain weight, not lose it.
We encourage instead a focus on health because healthy behaviors take our bodies to their natural healthy weights and keep them there.
Now back to gluten
Many people do find they lose weight when they cut out gluten for two primary reasons:
- They start eating more healthfully. They are forced to stop eating gluten-containing foods like muffins, pizza, cookies, cakes, etc. (gluten is found in wheat, rye and barley, and oats are often contaminated with it), and they often start eating more fruits and vegetables. While gluten-free versions of muffins and the like are often available, they are harder to get and more expensive.
- People who are truly sensitive to gluten may have associated health problems, such as chronic inflammation, which can knock our bodies out of balance. That can mean disturbed cues for eating, water retention, fatigue and other problems that interfere with leading a healthy lifestyle and can lead to weight gain.When they eliminate gluten, many of these problems resolve and their bodies move to a healthier place. Read more about this in our article “Do You Need to Go Gluten Free?”
So it sounds like gluten-free is the way to go?
If your goal is purely weight loss, it may help you achieve it (emphasis on the “may” — see the last bullet point below). But as experience with different weight-loss schemes has repeatedly shown, if it’s not sustainable, we’re likely to end up weighing more, not less.
While it’s easier to eliminate gluten today than it was in the past, it still means forgoing lots of foods. If weight loss is the only reason you have to give them up, feelings of deprivation might win over weight loss dreams. And deprivation leads us all too often to eating more than we really want.
If you do decide to cut out gluten
Digestive disturbances, painful joints, skin conditions such as eczema, and more health problems have been linked to gluten intolerance. So it may be a worthwhile exploration to see if you do feel better by eliminating gluten.
But before you do, here’s some important information from Shelley Case, RD, a leading nutrition expert on celiac disease and the gluten-free diet.
- Those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity need a gluten-free diet. This is not a fad but a medical necessity.
- Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder that affects 1 out of 100 people yet only about 5-10% with the disease are diagnosed.
- Research from the Center for Celiac Research in Baltimore indicates up to 6% of the population may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
- People who claim they feel better on a gluten-free diet may have undiagnosed celiac disease or have non-celiac gluten sensitivity [Editor note: or a sensitivity to other carbohydrates]. Without a confirmed diagnosis a) the person may not be motivated to follow the lifelong strict gluten-free diet to prevent complications of celiac disease such as osteoporosis, development of other autoimmune disease and cancer and b) first degree relatives may not be tested because the family member does not have a definitive diagnosis.
- It is critical that people get tested for celiac disease before going on a gluten-free diet because once on the diet it is difficult to get an accurate diagnosis.
- A gluten-free diet does not always equate to a healthy diet. Many gluten-free products are higher in fat, sugar and calories; lower in fiber, iron and B vitamins because they are often made with refined flours and starches (e.g., white rice flour, potato, corn and tapioca starch) and not enriched with vitamins and minerals as their gluten-containing counterparts.