Gluten-Free Foods and Diets
Susan Bowerman M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWN, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training, Herbalife Nutrition
For those who have a true intolerance or sensitivity to gluten – a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley – these foods are blessing. Interestingly, however, many of these products are being snapped up by those who tolerate gluten just fine in the belief that going gluten-free is a great strategy for weight loss. And to them, I say, “buyer beware” – just because a food carries a gluten-free label doesn’t necessarily mean it’s low in calories or healthier for you.
Before jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon, let’s discuss the basics of gluten.
What Is Gluten?
Simply stated, gluten is a protein found primarily in wheat, rye, and barley. When you eat wheat bread or barley soup, gluten provides your body with protein that can be used to build and repair muscle tissue or to manufacture other body proteins like hormones and enzymes.
Gluten protein provides structure to baked goods and can be isolated from grains and formed into a vegetarian meat substitute known as seitan or “wheat meat.” Like other proteins derived from grains, gluten provides most – but not all – essential amino acids.
Essential amino acids are the ones your body can’t make, so they have to come from the foods that you eat. So, those who use seitan as a meat substitute are advised to include other plant proteins in the diet (such as beans and lentils) to provide the body with the full complement of the amino acid building blocks it requires.
Is a Gluten-Free Diet Really Good for Weight Loss?
Many people feel that they can’t handle gluten because they feel bloated or gassy when they eat grains – and because they feel less bloated when they stop eating gluten-rich foods. And, they note that they often lose weight when they cut out the gluten – which may partially explain recent enthusiasm for gluten-free fare.
Since gluten lurks not only in grain foods but is also used as a stabilizer and thickener in lots of processed foods – like salad dressings, frozen yogurt, and processed cold cuts – it could be that people just feel better after they go gluten-free, whether they’re intolerant of it or not. After all, they’d likely be cutting out fast foods and highly processed foods – and possibly replacing starchy foods with high-fiber fruits and veggies – which could promote better digestion and help with weight loss.
Learning from history: the food industry responds.
This glut of gluten-free products reminds me of the avalanche of low-carb foods that filled stores at the tail end of the Atkins low-carb diet craze. When the low-carbohydrate diet was first popular more than 40 years ago, meals consisted mainly of protein and fat, a very limited number of fruits and vegetables – and not much of anything else.
Staying within the day’s carbohydrate allotment was pretty easy since food choices were so limited, and calorie counting wasn’t necessary. Even with the promise that people could eat all the meat they wanted, most lost weight. But this was due, in part, because boredom set in. With so little variety, people simply ended up eating less. There’s only so much meat a person can eat at a sitting, day after day.
Not wanting to miss an opportunity, in more recent years, food manufacturers went full tilt and unleashed a torrent of low-carb foods into the market – like candy bars, breads, cookies, and cakes – all deemed suitable for carb-watchers.
Suddenly, this limited diet became more varied than ever – and people took in more calories than ever before… and, not surprisingly, they saw their weight start to climb.
Why? They’d gotten so used to counting only carbs (and not calories) that they failed to notice that many of these foods – although hyped as low carbohydrate – were loaded with calories, mostly from added fat.
Gluten-free substitutions could still have a lot of calories.
Since the primary source of gluten in the diet is wheat (and anything made from it), someone shunning gluten would need to give up foods like bread, rice, pasta, cakes, pies, cookies, pretzels and crackers, and get more of their carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables instead – not a bad strategy for weight loss.
But just as food manufacturers sought to satisfy our cravings for low-carb foods, it seems they may be following the same playbook when it comes to gluten-free.
In today’s market, you’ll find a lot of gluten-free products, including cereals, brownies, granola, cakes, cookies, and even gluten-free pizza – thanks to the substitution (in most cases) of refined rice flour, corn starch, and potato starch for traditional wheat flour. But starch is starch, so simply dodging gluten isn’t going to necessarily save you any calories – which is why it’s so important to pay attention to the nutrition facts on the package.
Compare the labels of gluten-free brownie mix or cake mix to the regular versions and you’ll see what I mean – same portion, same calories. Just last week, I spied some gluten-free muffins at the bakery – but with 20 grams of fat and 450 calories each, they hardly qualify as a diet food.
If you’re paying attention only to your gluten intake and not calories, you could be making a huge mistake – a diet loaded with gluten-free food products could bring your weight loss goal to a screeching halt.
Advice for Those Who Do Have Gluten Sensitivity
Some people truly have gluten intolerance and do have to follow a strict gluten-free diet, but the numbers are relatively small – it’s been estimated that only about 1% of the population has the most severe form, known as celiac disease.
Those who are truly intolerant have to spend lots of time reading labels – wheat, rye and barley, as well as wheat “cousins” such as kamut, triticale and spelt, need to be avoided. And, products made from these grains – like bulgur, couscous, wheat germ, semolina, durum, and bran are forbidden, too.
Gluten might also be disguised on a label as vegetable protein, modified food starch, or malt flavoring, and it’s sometimes found in soy sauce and grain-based alcohol.
That said, a gluten-free diet can easily provide balanced nutrition:
- Unprocessed meats, fish and poultry, eggs, dairy products and beans and lentils can all supply protein.
- Carbohydrates can be had from vegetables, fruits, and gluten-free grains like quinoa, corn, brown rice or wild rice.
- Nuts, seeds, avocado, and unsaturated oils can supply essential fatty acids.
Final Advice on Gluten and Nutrition
Nutrition is complex and personal, but don’t be swayed by a diet fad without doing a little research. If weight loss is your goal, a gluten-free diet could help, but if you simply avoid gluten and don’t watch your calories you may not make much progress.
Instead, take a look at your typical sources of gluten – if most of it is coming from starch-heavy pasta, cakes, cookies, white bread and pretzels, then cutting back could be a sensible strategy. Replacing refined grains with healthy carbs like fruits, vegetables, and gluten-free whole grains is good advice for everyone.