Gluten Grief

Is gluten the new enemy?

Gluten became the newest nemesis in the healthy-eating community when a handful of celebrities began swearing it off and raving about the benefits of a gluten-free diet—one, of course, being weight loss. Unfortunately, that’s not always guaranteed.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation out there about how this is the new way to lose weight,” says Jennifer Fugo, certified health coach and founder of the Gluten Free School in Philadelphia. And here lies the problem: a gluten-free diet is not a weight-loss regimen.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, so eliminating it from one’s diet means cutting out most breads, pastries and pastas. And when you remove a lot of foods from your diet, it’s not uncommon to shed a few pounds. That’s where the weight loss thing comes from. However, if one cuts out gluten by substituting the gluten-laden items in their diet with products like gluten-free bread, pasta and sweets, it’s most likely making matters worse. The flours used in gluten-free substitutes are highly processed, and many of these products are loaded with sugar to compensate for the taste. Fugo says she has clients with pre-diabetic, metabolic and thyroid problems as a result.

For example, while ginger snaps are usually one of the healthier cookie options, a company called Glow makes gluten-free ginger snaps that contain as much saturated fat as 10 McDonald’s chicken nuggets and more calories than seven Nabisco ginger snaps. Yikes. Not to mention that plenty of junk food is gluten free, such as Burger King’s new french fries, Dairy Queen’s M&M Blizzards and Cheetos.

But people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance haveto cut out gluten. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that destroys the zilli of the intestinal tract and causes many health problems—all of which are ameliorated by a strict no-gluten diet. An intolerance is when the body reacts to gluten as if it were an invader, resulting in symptoms such as gas, diarrhea, constipation, mucous, headaches and mental fogginess. Gluten can take up to four days to clear the body.

So why the recent increase in people needing to ditch gluten? Fugo has a few theories. It could just be that we now know more about it than we once did, and that gluten has always been the unknown culprit of certain health issues. Because wheat is more hybridized than it was 50 to 60 years ago, it’s possible that now more people react to it. Or maybe people are consuming more wheat than they once were.

“Overexposure can cause the body to all of a sudden see that protein as an invader,” Fugo says.

 But going gluten-free can be healthy, if only because it can make you more aware of the foods you are eating, and thus can result in healthier eating choices. The detriment of the gluten-free diet, Fugo says, is that people focus on substitution products and forget that vegetables, fruits and many healthy protein sources are all gluten-free too.

“It’s about balancing out your diet in a way that’s healthy and also gluten-free,” she says.