Promises of easy weight loss on a gluten-free diet are similar to promises of finding your future sweetheart on a dating website. While tempting, they gloss over the fact that it’s never that easy or that simple. In fact, despite the claims of celebrities and your friend who hasn’t touched bread in five years, there still isn’t a general consensus from the health community as to whether or not a gluten-free diet is the best way to get slim and healthy.
A gluten-free diet is the answer to better health and a slimmer waist: Or is it?
Many studies assert that a gluten-free diet reduces a variety of symptoms such as hair loss, fatigue, skin irritations, bloating and headaches. Going gluten-free is also necessary for those who have celiac disease, a gluten allergy or intolerance.
Some specialists, however, claim that everyone should avoid wheat, even whole grains, because it contributes to heart disease, strokes and obesity. Others, on the other hand, condemn the gluten-free diet as a weight loss solution because it discourages dieters from eating healthful whole grains. The diet also misleads dieters to think that they won’t gain a pound or compromise their health by gorging on gluten-free pizzas, pastas and baked goods.
Nutritionists further warn that those on a gluten-free diet are not getting the recommended dose of fiber, magnesium, B and D vitamins, folic acid, iron and calcium. So, who is right? Well, the answer depends on what grains and what gluten-free products the gluten-free dieter is eating.
The nutritional pitfalls of a gluten-free diet: A gluten-free cookie is still a cookie!
Before Oprah and Gwyneth Paltrow made it popular and before every supermarket stuffed its shelves with gluten-free goodies, I did not eat wheat. Due to a wheat allergy, I made my own breads and, whenever I had a craving for something sweet, my own brown rice or quinoa cookies. I used to be the odd one out, but no longer so, as it seems that gluten intolerances are now as common as the common cold.
While I was initially excited by the fact that I no longer had to make my own bread and muffins, I soon realized that most gluten-free products aren’t actually good for you and can actually make you fat! This is because many gluten-free products have more sugar and fat than the gluten version. The added fats and sugars not only mask the taste of gluten-free flours, but also help to imitate the texture and fluffiness of regular baked goods.
There’s more bad news: Manufactured gluten-free breads, pastas, cereals and sweets are usually made from the nutrient-less starches such as corn, rice and potato starch and refined flours such as rice and corn flour. In addition, and unlike the regular bread products, most gluten-free products are not fortified with calcium, iron, folic acid and vitamins B and D.
Given these nutritional deficiencies, eating too many gluten-free products actually prevents weight loss and better health.
Going gluten free the right way
Many people, such as myself, have no choice but to eat a gluten-free diet. For those with celiac disease, it is especially important to eat a variety of healthful gluten-free grains because this disease prevents the intestines from properly absorbing crucial nutrients. To avoid the extra fat and sugar and to prevent mineral and vitamin deficiencies, follow these simple rules:
» Look for pastas, breads and cereals that are made from unrefined whole grain flours such as amaranth, brown or wild rice, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum or teff. Also, look for products that are fortified with B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate), iron, calcium, and dietary fiber.
» Avoid products that are predominately made with starches, such as corn or potato starch, and that are high in fat and sugar.
» If you have a sweet tooth, make your own baked goods using whole grain flours and use applesauce and maple syrup instead of butter and sugar. For some healthful gluten-free recipes, visit www.theaccommodatingkitchen.com.
Through careful scrutiny of the ingredients in gluten-free products and eating healthful gluten-free grains, eating gluten-free can be a nutritional powerhouse, a weight loss solution and a great way to explore your culinary creativity.
» William Davis, Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health (William Davis, MD, 2011).
» Tricia, Thompson, The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2008).
» Tricia Thompson, “Chapter 4: The Nutritional Quality of Gluten-Free Foods” in Eimear Gallagher (ed), Gluten-Free Food Science and Technology (Blackwell Publishing, 2009) 42.