Gluten-Free Diets — The Straight Skinny

Should you go gluten-free to lose weight or not?

Contributor: Lindsay Malone, MS, RD, LD, Nutrition Therapy

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Adopting a gluten-free diet for weight loss is a growing trend. Popular books and celebrities endorse gluten elimination as a way to lose weight and to remedy related health problems.

Every fad diet will have a few solid testimonials from people who experience success. But is there scientific evidence to back up their claims? And what the heck is gluten anyway?

Gluten is a protein found in some grains, including wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a wheat-rye hybrid).

Eliminating gluten: When it’s essential

Most people can fully digest and metabolize gluten. However, 1 percent of the general population has Celiac disease, or gluten intolerance. They experience an autoimmune response from ingesting gluten. This leads to inflammation of the intestine, often accompanied by stomach pain, gas, bloating and diarrhea. Untreated gluten intolerance can compromise the intestinal wall so that it can no longer absorb vital nutrients. 

In addition, many people are believed to have gluten sensitivity. They experience similar symptoms — gas, bloating, diarrhea and stomach pain — without damage to the intestinal wall.

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The treatment for both gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity involves removing gluten from the diet. For these people, a gluten-free diet can be the path to living symptom-free.

Eliminating gluten — or calories?

Gluten-free diets can have a slimming effect on those with gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity by relieving gas and bloating.  But is the same approach warranted for people who can tolerate gluten but just want to lose weight?

Consider that the way to achieve weight loss is to eat fewer calories than your body uses each day. When your body lacks enough calories from food to supply energy (a caloric deficit), it turns to stored body fat for fuel. This results in weight loss. Given this formula, any diet has the potential to cause weight loss — especially diets that eliminate foods consumed in abundance on a daily basis.

What to borrow from gluten-free diets

You can create a healthy diet by excluding many of the low-nutrient, high-calorie foods that a gluten-free diet eliminates. After all, the bulk of the American diet consists of gluten-rich foods such as:

  • Bread
  • Cereal
  • Crackers
  • Pizza
  • Cookies
  • Granola bars
  • Pasta
  • Beer

Doing nothing more than eliminating gluten from your diet will likely produce a caloric deficit. However, it’s better to achieve a caloric deficit by consuming fewer total calories. For a more balanced approach, try the following:

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1. Focus on healthy foods. Incorporate these nutrient-rich foods into your diet for overall health:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Lean protein
  • Fish
  • Low-fat dairy or dairy alternatives
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Nutritious fats, like olive oil and canola oil 

2. Add whole grains to the mix. Include these minimally processed whole grains to get the fiber, vitamins and minerals essential for digestive health:

  • Whole oats (substitute oat cereals for boxed oat flakes)
  • Brown rice
  • Barley
  • Woven whole-wheat crackers (to replace white-flour-based crackers)

3. Eliminate all processed foods. Substitute whole foods for their refined counterparts in your diet and you will:

  • Feel satisfied after eating
  • Increase your intake of naturally occurring nutrients, including protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals
  • Eliminate unnecessary fats, sugars, sodium and preservatives from your diet

The bottom line

If you can tolerate gluten but are looking to shed a few pounds, focus on choosing appropriate portions of whole, minimally processed foods from a variety of food groups. You’ll find success — and you’ll feel great.

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