If I had to pick one trend in healthy eating that seems to be showing up almost everywhere I look, it would be the gluten-free trend. From popular books, magazines and websites to grocery-store shelves and restaurant menus, it seems everyone is jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon—most of them thinking that it will help with weight management. Is there any science to support that claim?
The fact is that many more people are sensitive to gluten than was believed only a few short years ago. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Most oats are contaminated with it also. It’s estimated that one out of 20 of us have some form of gluten intolerance, the most severe of which is celiac disease.
Gluten sensitivity is not easy to diagnose. For celiac disease, which involves a severe negative reaction to gluten, blood tests and intestinal biopsies are generally advised. For milder forms of gluten intolerance, conclusive tests are not yet available. The bottom line is to remove it from your diet and see if symptoms you are experiencing go away. Symptoms of gluten intolerance range from migraines, diarrhea, constipation and bloating to muscle and joint pain to autoimmune diseases and more.
After several years of experiencing symptoms including extreme fatigue, weight gain and fibromyalgia, I eliminated gluten from my diet to explore whether it was the cause of my problems. After several weeks, I added it back as a test and immediately again experienced extreme fatigue. A stool test also revealed the presence of gluten antibodies. As a result, I went gluten-free about five years ago. My fibromyalgia is now gone, I have energy again and I’ve lost over 20 pounds without trying, maintaining it with no effort at all.
So does that mean everyone who struggles with weight should try going gluten-free? Not at all.
In my case, and probably with all people who are gluten sensitive and lose weight when they stop eating gluten, the likely reason for their weight struggles is chronic inflammation. That’s true with any food sensitivity. Chronic inflammation often leads to insulin resistance, which can create all kinds of havoc with body weight. But if you’re not gluten sensitive, cutting out gluten won’t help—even if you are insulin resistant.
One final word about gluten-free eating. Healing your body of damage caused by a gluten or other food sensitivity requires a nutrient-rich diet that’s best obtained by eating whole foods. Just substituting gluten-free treats, like packaged cookies and chips, in an eating plan that’s low on nutrition won’t do the job. Enjoy plenty of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, whole grains, including gluten-containing ones if you’re not sensitive, and sustainably-raised protein foods to give your body what you need to feel great.
Marsha Hudnall, RD, MS, CD, is a nationally known nutritionist with more than 25 years experience as a weight management specialist. She is the owner and director of Green Mountain at Fox Run, a women’s weight loss program and spa retreat. As part of Green Mountain’s Healing with Food program, she regularly helps women discover whether eating gluten creates eating and weight struggles for them.