Well let’s look to the Merriam Webster dictionary for an answer: gluten is a tenacious elastic protein substance [found in] wheat [products] that gives cohesiveness (it’s elastic property) to dough. Does that sound dangerous? No. Did you gain 5 pounds just reading this? Hope not. Does knowing that gluten is just a protein change your perception?
So if it's just a protein found in grains, why has it gotten such a bad rap for causing weight gain, inflammation, and bloating? Good question. This may stem from celebrity endorsements and a few books claiming that you can "lose weight, shrink unsightly bulges, and reverse a broad spectrum of health problems (1) just by eliminating wheat from your diet. This was the claim made by Dr. William Davis in his book Wheat Belly. Unfortunately, the studies he cites were conducted on small populations and/or had many flaws. Long story short, more research needs to be conducted to determine the effectiveness of a wheat-free diet in curing the aforementioned problems. See a full book review here.
In defense of gluten-free:
I’ve heard countless people swear by a gluten free diet for weight loss, improved bowel health, and decreased inflammation. And that’s great, if you’ve tracked your symptoms and found that wheat causes them, by all means, avoid gluten! The concerns that I have, and that many other registered dietitians have is that:
- Any sort of very restrictive diet is hard to follow. Even for those with Celiac Disease; whose intestines are destroyed by an immune reaction when they consume gluten, and suffer from significant intestinal discomfort and sickness (2); it’s still difficult to follow as many commonly eaten foods are completely restricted.
- Especially when following this diet to promote weight loss, it’s important to realize that some gluten free products are made with refined grains, that are not enriched with vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, & B vitamins (like many gluten containing breads, cereals are), and they often contain more fat and less carbohydrates and fiber. Sound healthier?
- Since gluten has textural properties, manufacturers need to add more fat or other products to create equivalent or similar textures/flavors.
Researchers from Arizona State University found that: Despite the health claims for gluten-free eating, there is no published experimental evidence to support such claims for the general population. In fact, there are data to suggest that gluten itself may provide some health benefits, and that gluten avoidance may not be justified for otherwise healthy individuals (2).
They also sifted through studies related to the effects of a gluten free diet, finding that:
- Starches found in wheat (such as oligofructose and inulin) help create a healthy composition of gut bacteria, which may protect the gut from some cancers, cardiovascular disease, and inflammatory conditions
- Wheat derived fibers have been reported to decrease blood sugar spikes after eating, reduce risk of developing abnormally elevated insulin levels (which is an early marker of diabetes type 2), reduce fasting triglycerides, and reduce body weight
If you’re one of the people who often feels bloated, tired, etc.. try keeping a food journal and chronicle your symptoms along with what you’re eating. This will give you an idea of what is causing your discomfort, whether it’s from a certain food or emotion such as stress. While following a gluten free diet, make sure to continue to eat gluten free whole grains, and consider seeing a registered dietitian who can help you ensure you’re getting all the vitamins and minerals needed! Find a Registered Dietitian here.
So….What’s the take home message?
Focus on eating whole grain products (they have more B vitamins, fiber, and a bit more protein & also help protect your gut!), limit added sugars in grain products, and if you like it-EAT IT in moderation!
Also, did you know that beer has gluten in it???
Interested in trying new grains?
Check out these whole grain options: http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/whole-grains-a-to-z
I recommend buying them from bulk sections, so you can try a smaller amount.
And here’s a list of my favorite Utah store bulk food sections:
- Whole Foods
1. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Book Reviews. http://www.eatright.org/Media/content.aspx?
id=6442475510#.U4UE6y9L6Ko. Accessed June 2, 2014.
2. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/celiac-disease/basics/definition/con-20030410.
Accessed June 2, 2014.
3. Food & Nutrition mag: http://www.foodandnutrition.org/Summer-2010/Gluten-Free-A-Fad-That-Could-Be-
Doing-More-Harm-Than-Good/. Accessed June 2, 2014.
4. Gaesser G, Angadi S. Gluten-free diet: imprudent dietary advice for the general population?. Journal Of The
Academy Of Nutrition And Dietetics [serial online]. September 2012;112(9):1330-1333. Available from: MEDLINE,
Ipswich, MA. Accessed June 2, 2014.
5. US News http://health.usnews.com/health-news/articles/2012/04/11/is-a-gluten-free-diet-smart-for-weight-
loss. Accessed June 2, 2014.
6. Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gluten. Accessed June 2, 2014.