For the last few years, the number of Americans going on gluten-free diets has increased. It make sense: Doctors are diagnosing more people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
But a strange thing is happening: People who don’t have either condition are cutting gluten out of their diet in an effort to lose weight and cleanse their system. And that could lead to health problems—and even weight gain.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and oats (usually due to contamination). For people who have a gluten intolerance, eating breads or even drinking a beer can cause abdominal pain, gas, bloating, and diarrhea. In the most extreme cases, in which doctors diagnose celiac disease, consuming gluten can set off an autoimmune response that damages the small intestine and makes it difficult to absorb nutrients. The government estimates that there are more than two million American’s with this disorder.
To prevent these problems, sufferers exclude gluten from their diet. It’s expensive and difficult, but that hasn’t stopped people without celiac disease from trying it—including some celebs. Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Aniston dropped gluten as part of cleansing diets.
Celebrities will do anything to lose weight. More disturbing are reports that college students and young people are turning to gluten-free diets because they perceive them to be healthy.
But not only is it hard to be on a gluten-free diet, it also isn’t very healthy, according to nutritionist Julie Miller Jones, a professor of nutrition in the department of family, consumer, and nutritional sciences at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn. “Why anyone would want to do this diet who didn’t have to is really beyond me,” she says. “It’s sort of faddy and trendy right now.”
Foods that contain gluten are often rich sources of B vitamins, calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and magnesium, among other minerals, and many wheat products are actually fortified with these vitamins. People with celiac disease have to find other sources for those vitamins. People on a gluten-free diet have to do the same.
Jones says it’s hard to tell if there would be any long term weight-loss benefits from adopting a gluten-free diet. Initially, dieters might eat fewer carbs or might lose weight just because they have trouble finding affordable gluten-free alternatives. “A loaf of gluten-free bread is between $7 and $9 and you have to go to special stores,” she says. “It’s more expensive. It’s really hard to eat out. It can mean you won’t be able to eat many whole-grain foods. It’s a hard diet to follow.”
But once gluten-free dieters start substituting with gluten-free foods, they often gain weight. “The replacement products that are available are very low in fiber and have a very high glycemic index.” And they can be higher in fat because manufacturers sometimes replace gluten with fat.
In the Kelley household, we know firsthand how hard it is to go gluten-free. Our son has a major allergy to wheat, and we often use gluten-free substitutes and strategies. It’s time-consuming, and it’s expensive, but we do it because we have no choice. And we’re constantly worried about whether he gets enough of his vitamins.
But just because a diet seems healthier for people with food allergies or food intolerances—or even helps them lose weight—doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for anyone else.