The Skinny on Gluten-Free Diets

Eating a gluten-free diet has become a mainstream topic in the media, and has led to increased availability and marketing of gluten-free products in supermarkets and restaurants around the country. This is all great news for those (like myself) who have Celiac Disease, an auto-immune disorder which prevents the body from properly digesting gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. However, less than 1% of the population of the United States has Celiac Disease, or about two million people.[1] While that is still a large number, the prevalence of gluten-free dieting has spread beyond those with Celiac Disease. Researchers are still debating whether or not non-Celiac gluten sensitivity exists, but that has not stopped millions of Americans from choosing to follow a gluten-free diet. Nevertheless, the current public obsession with gluten-free dieting should not be accepted at face-value. A lifestyle of gluten-free eating habits may not be a wise or healthy choice for the majority of the population, and may even lead to a poor vitamin status.

Many people may start a gluten-free diet because they believe that they will be healthier as a result. Some people believe that undiagnosed health issues will begin to clear up, or that they will begin to feel more alert. One prevailing public notion is that a gluten-free diet will lead to increased weight loss. As seen in a recent Jimmy Kimmel segment on late-night television, “Pedestrian Question – What is Gluten?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AdJFE1sp4Fw) many who follow a gluten-free diet do not even know what gluten is, and none have an evidence-based scientific explanation for their current gluten-free lifestyle. While many ideas about gluten-free dieting are seen in the culture today, the reality of a gluten-free lifestyle is quite different. In a recent study, a population of adults with Celiac Disease were tested after several years of following a gluten-free diet. The study found that “half of the adult celiac patients carefully treated with a gluten-free diet for several years showed signs of a poor vitamin status.”[2] Additionally, many of the food products created to replace normal, gluten-containing products are made with refined white rice and potato flours. Gluten-free diets can often be low in vitamin content and protein, while high in simple carbohydrates/sugars. However, there is nothing wrong including gluten-containing products as part of a normal diet. On the contrary, whole grain foods (even those containing gluten) are high in fiber and B vitamins, and consumption of whole grains may lead to a decreased risk of developing heart disease, type-2 diabetes, obesity, and some forms of cancer.[3]

When beginning a gluten-free diet, many high-calorie foods are no longer an option for consumption, including most desserts and fried foods. Gluten-free options at restaurants will mainly include salads and grilled meats, but eating out in general becomes significantly more challenging. Additionally, a large number of processed “junk foods” become off-limits, including high-calorie foods such as packaged cookies, crackers, and bread products. As a result, it is possible for those embarking on a gluten-free diet to see a brief period of increased weight loss because they are forced to choose foods with a lower caloric density. Gluten-free dieting itself will not lead to greater weight loss on its own, as healthy weight loss is only increased by creating an energy deficit – that is, consuming fewer calories than your body uses through metabolism and exercise. A diet of solely Twinkies (http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/11/08/twinkie.diet.professor/) can lead to weight loss if the correct number of calories are consumed.

Celiac Disease or a gluten sensitivity should not be a self-diagnosed condition. If you believe that you may in any way benefit from a permanent gluten-free diet, talk to your doctor before initiating the change, as you would with any significant health situation. There are several ways to be tested for Celiac Disease including a simple blood test. For more information about Celiac Disease or making informed gluten-free choices for your diet, please see the following links:

-          http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/celiac/

-          http://celiac.org/

-          http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/celiacdisease.html

 

Written by:

Caleb McKusick - Strength and Conditioning Intern

 


References

[1] Fasano A, Berti I, Gerarduzzi T, et al. Prevalence of celiac disease in at-risk and not-at-risk groups in the United States. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2003; 163(3): 268–292.
[2] Hallert C, et al. Evidence of poor vitamin status in coeliac patients on a gluten-free diet for 10 years. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2002 Jul; 16(7):1333-9.
[3] Slavin J. Whole grains and human health. Nutrition Research Reviews. 2004 May; Vol 17: 99-110.