What’s the deal with going gluten-free? It seems to be the latest don’t eat “du jour,” promising everything from relief for joint pain, skin rashes, acne, anxiety and depression, to increased weight loss and energy, even happiness.
But if you ask any random bystander at a gym or yoga class what “gluten” actually is, their definitions will vary widely. “I think it’s the stuff in the bread that makes you fat,” they’ll say. Or, “It’s a grain. You know, the flour derivative of wheat.”
Needless to say, the majority of Americans are clueless when it comes to the basic premise of a gluten-free diet. So what exactly is a gluten, and why is it getting such a bad rap? First, simply stated, gluten is a general name for the proteins found in such staples as wheat, wheat germ, barley, triticale, rye, pasta, spelt, semolina and hydrolyzed vegetable protein, among others. It helps food maintain their shape, making them chewy, acting as the glue that holds them together, hence the name! And if you actually have Celiac Disease, a chronic autoimmune condition, eating gluten triggers an abnormal immune response that can damage the small intestine.
But what about the vast majority of the rest of us who have no such thing? Yes, there is a percentage of the population that is “gluten sensitive,” meaning they have unpleasant side effects after ingesting the offending foods, but how do you know if that’s the case? Or what if, instead, you have merely fallen prey to all the hype, the result of which abounds on practically every shelf in the supermarket including, but not limited to, gluten-free chicken nuggets? There are even gluten-free Communion wafers.
Drew Manning is a renowned personal trainer and the author of the New York Times best-seller Fit2Fat2Fit. (He has recently teamed up with Costa Vida Fresh Mexican Grill, a national restaurant franchise known to be gluten-free-friendly). Years ago, when he was a part-time personal trainer working full-time in the medical field, he realized that he should practice what he had been preaching to clients and patients. Having been fit his whole life, Manning underwent his own lifestyle changes to gain weight—70 pounds, to be exact—and increase his body fat percentage. Spending months to reach his unhealthy goal, he then implemented a diet and exercise routine for himself and his clients to get fit together, which he chronicles in the first part of his book.
For the second part of his odyssey, Manning followed a gluten-free diet the wrong way and actually doubled his body fat in two short months. It was only when he followed a gluten-free diet correctly that he got into shape again and lost the recently gained weight.
Spry Living: What motivated you to take this journey in the first place?
Drew Manning: I wanted to show both sides of the gluten-free diet because it has become such a trend. I felt that since this is now a billion dollar industry and one in three Americans are eating gluten-free, it was time to expose just how unhealthy this diet can be, but then educate people on how to go about it the right way.
What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about going gluten-free?
Here are the three most common misconceptions, in my opinion, about the gluten-free diet…
- Eating gluten-free means you’ll lose weight. This is why it’s now such a fad. Many people see celebrities endorse it, boasting they’ve lost weight simply by cutting out gluten. But I proved there is a wrong way to eat gluten-free and that’s why I ended up gaining twenty pounds in two months and doubling my body fat percentage!
- Gluten-free means sugar free or fat free: We see claims like this stamped on all types of food and snacks today, and it is human nature to assume that if an item was removed, then it must have been inherently bad for you. But this kind of ties into misconception number one and goes to show that a lot of people who purchase these products need to be educated on what gluten-free really is.
- Gluten-free is healthier: If you have Celiac Disease, then you will most likely be forced into avoiding gluten, but if you’re gluten- sensitive, then you have a choice. With 37 percent of people thinking if a product is labeled “Gluten-Free” that it’s automatically healthier for them than the non-gluten-free food item, I found that most of these products are just as bad if not worse given all the substitutes. Just remember that a gluten-free cookie is still a cookie and processed gluten-free foods are still processed foods!
How do you know if you’re gluten sensitive? What are the common symptoms?
There are many tests out there these days to show if you have sensitivity to gluten, but the symptoms are different in each person. Some may experience things such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, fatigue, and joint pain. A good way to see if you’re gluten intolerant is to go 100% without any gluten for 10 to 30 days. Then after those 10 to 30 days, re-implement gluten back in and see how your body reacts. If you have adverse reactions, like the ones mentioned above, then you might have intolerance to gluten.
Are there other reasons people should avoid gluten besides being allergic to it?
Not necessarily, but most products containing gluten are processed, which isn’t healthy for you to begin with.
What is the difference of being “gluten-free” versus “wheat-free?”
Gluten is in wheat, but also barley and rye products, so going wheat-free doesn’t mean that you’re gluten-free, just that you’re only cutting out wheat, but not barley and rye, which is in some alcohol and other bread items.
Are there any downsides to eating gluten-free?
Well, aside from making unhealthy choices, one of the biggest downsides is the cost. Most gluten-free labeled foods are up to five times more expensive than their non-gluten-free counterparts. And if you’re eating mostly gluten-free, processed foods, then most likely you’ll lose out on a lot of phytonutrients that your body needs but isn’t getting, and that could lead to increased fat gain.
What is the wrong way to eat gluten-free?
Just like I did! For two months I ate anything that was labeled “gluten-free,” which included things like gluten-free crackers, breads, pizzas, cereals, chips, cookies, etc., and ended up gaining all that weight and doubling my body fat percentage. That was the wrong way to eat gluten-free.
What recommendations do you have for people trying to follow a healthy gluten-free diet?
First, I recommend by starting with foods that are naturally gluten-free, like meats (fish, chicken, turkey, and eggs), fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, nuts, and seeds. That should constitute most of you regimen. Second, I suggest an occasional gluten-free substitute as a treat every once in a while or to mix things up, like gluten-free oatmeal, or gluten-free breads. Just try and stay away from the ones that have a large amount of ingredients, which usually means a lot of preservatives and processed junk you don’t want. It’s also good to be assertive when eating out and let the waiter know that you’re gluten-free. Most places these days are accommodating to people with these types of food allergies.
In order to lose the weight, did you exercise along with eating properly?
Yes, I exercised three times per week as I gained the weight and three times per week as I lost the weight. So my workouts stayed consistent throughout. I wanted to show people that it’s not so much about the exercise—it’s more about their diet.