MealEnders Blog

Going Gluten-Free

The Gluten-Free Diet Debunked

By Tami Lyon, MPH, RD
June 15, 2016

The Gluten-Free Diet Debunked


Following a gluten-free diet has skyrocketed in popularity, but do we really know what it’s all about? People across the nation have been cutting out gluten from their diets in the hope of shedding pounds and living healthier lifestyles. Countless celebrities have endorsed stepping away from gluten, and some have even written books about their own unique “G-Free” diets.  Gluten-free products have even earned their own shelf space in grocery stores. Not surprising when you consider that nearly 30 percent of Americans say they are trying to reduce their gluten intake, according to the NPD Group.

But where did the notion of being gluten-free even come from? Is it really healthier for you?  Should everyone give up on gluten (especially if weight loss is a major motivator)? How much truth is there to this fad diet?

At the core of this whole discussion is gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and dozens of processed foods.  There are the obvious products that are made with wheat and gluten-containing grains, such as bread, pasta, and cereal.  But then there are foods that use gluten as a thickening agent and a “filler,” ranging from foods like jelly beans to deli meats to ice cream.  In addition, gluten is used as a binder in many everyday products such as medications and beauty products.  Completely avoiding gluten products (including those made on machines that process wheat products) is actually a pretty tricky business.

There are those who must follow a gluten-free diet for health reasons. About 1 percent of the world’s population suffers from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder where gluten negatively affects how the intestines absorb food particles and nutrients. Even fewer people (about 0.1 percent) have a wheat allergy, but this typically occurs in children and is outgrown. The most common disorder managed by gluten restriction is non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). However there is no hard test that can decisively determine NCGS yet, so diagnoses are subjective.

If you have one of these disorders, then following a diet free of gluten is imperative to your health.  If you aren’t currently diagnosed with celiac disease, wheat-allergy, or gluten sensitivity, you’re in the clear!  No need to cut out gluten from your life!

So, why do so many people think it’s a good idea?  Eliminating gluten from your diet means that many common foods are no longer an option for meals and snacks. Items like bread, buns, pancakes, cookies, and crackers are off the menu unless they are gluten-free. These limitations may result in reduced calorie consumption (and thus weight loss) simply because of limited food options. Eating less bread, pasta, cereal and other carb-heavy foods will help you slim down whether you exclude gluten from your diet or not.  So, you can achieve the same benefits by just being more selective about which gluten-inclusive foods you eat–particularly, opting for the hearty whole grain versions.   Whole grain products, including whole wheat, contain more protein and fiber than their “white” counterparts (i.e. whole grain bread vs. white bread). They keep you feeling full longer and do a better job of regulating blood sugar levels.  Gluten is just as present in these foods as in the less healthy “white carbs,” but they don’t contribute to weight gain in the same way due to their nutrient content.

Products labeled “gluten-free” actually tend to contain more eggs, oil, and butter (and, therefore, more calories, fat, and sugar) than products that aren’t because they lack the binding agent in gluten that holds ingredients together. Furthermore, gluten-free does not equate to lower carbohydrates, despite the common misconception that reducing gluten automatically reduces carbs. The bottom line is that there is no scientific evidence backing up the claim that going gluten-free will increase weight loss.

Another thing to keep in mind is that neither a gluten-free sugar cookie nor a piece of fruit contain gluten, but their nutritional offerings are vastly different. Just because a product lacks gluten doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you and should be consumed regularly.  Consider this: someone who follows a vegan diet could easily gain weight if they up their intake of french fries and Oreos, just as some who avoids gluten could gain weight by chowing down on baked potatoes and gluten-free pizza.  It’s crucial to keep in mind that “gluten-free” is not the same as fat, sugar, or calorie free. Often, dieters will replace gluten-inclusive foods with even larger portions of a gluten free treat, upping calorie intake and counteracting weight loss efforts.

Again, it’s important to remember that gluten is present in whole grain foods that offer a wide variety of minerals, vitamins, protein, and fiber that are crucial to a healthy diet.  People who consume three servings of whole grains a day have a 30 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes in addition to decreased risk of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, and some cancers.

In the long run, turning to misleading gluten-free products if you don’t have a dietary restriction could lead to gaining weight if you aren’t conscious of maintaining a well balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, and legumes and getting enough exercise. Instead of cutting out an entire class of foods from your diet, focus on the number of calories you’re consuming to help aid weight loss. Whether the calories come from a gluten-free or gluten-inclusive products, they still add up at the end of the day.  

*Individual Results May Vary