Aisle 5 of my neighborhood grocery store is the gluten-free aisle. Almost every shelf is stacked with gluten-free (GF) this and that: pasta, crackers, cookies, you name it.
One day, I watched a 50ish woman in black tights and new Asics study the ingredients on a box like it was the fine print of a contract. She put the box back then picked it up again. I couldn’t help but ask if she follows a GF diet.
“No, but I have heard so much about it,” she said. “I’m not sure if it’s a fad or not. I read about so many people losing weight on it, I’m thinking about trying it. But is it just about eating only this kind of gluten-free food?”
That’s a good question. In many ways, GF has become the new Atkins, the latest South Beach Diet, the heir apparent to Paleo. With the help of clever marketing and product placement, sales of GF foods hit $4.2 billion in 2012, according to market research publisher Packaged Facts.
But can going GF help you lose weight — or just your money? Is it hype or helpful?
The first step is to understand the basis of gluten. What exactly is it?
Gluten is a combination of two proteins found in the endosperm of wheat, barley and rye. It is ground into flour to make foods likes bread, pizza, cereal, pasta, pastries and cookies. Gluten gives these foods their chewy texture. Gluten also shows up in items like soups, hot dogs, salad dressings and beer.
A gluten-free diet means you shun all gluten all the time with no exceptions. It sounds extreme, but for a good reason. Gluten-free is a medical diet for people who cannot properly digest gluten — a condition called celiac disease, which affects about one in every 133 people, or about 1.8 million. (A simple blood test and biopsy of the small intestine often can make the determination.)
When you cannot digest gluten, the gluten proteins stay in your stomach where they get attacked by your immune system and inflame your small intestines. This unleashes all kinds of aches and pains with the most common being diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating and fatigue. There is no cure, so the only way to manage the disease is to go gluten-free.
Sometimes people have trouble digesting gluten due to a sensitivity or allergy, which is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). About 5-10 percent have NCGS, according to the National Institutes of Health, University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center. Besides sharing many symptoms of celiac, those with NCGS can endure ailments like headaches, mental fogginess, joint pain, and numbness in the legs, arms, or fingers, says a 2012 report in BMC Medicine.
NCGS is often tough to diagnose. That is because you may be sensitive to only certain gluten foods like pasta, or to food that have high amounts of gluten. Again, a GF diet can help. However, if you believe you might have an isolated sensitivity, you can try an elimination diet in which you cut out a specific gluten food and then monitor your reaction. No changes? Try another. You may soon pinpoint the trigger food(s).
But what does this have to do with weight loss, you ask? Nothing really. Gluten itself is not “evil.” It does not directly cause you to gain weight. However, gluten can be tied to many villainous foods: processed, high fat, high calorie choices like bagels, pizza, chips, cookies and lasagna. It is these foods — and not gluten — that contribute to a bulging waistline. So if you are addicted to processed food and vending machine snacks, adopting a GF diet might help you break your bad food habit.
Of course, this does not mean you begin filling your cart in Aisle 5 with everything labeled GF. “Sometimes there are just as many high carbohydrate, high fat, high calorie gluten-free processed foods as there are gluten-full processed foods. It is all junk, plain and simple,” says Tricia Thompson, MS, RD, author of "The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide."
Instead, when you commit to GF the right way, you become a clean eater. Shun wheat and wheat products and your new food choices tend to be more natural and healthier: plenty of whole or frozen fruits and vegetables (but no canned or frozen brands with added sauces or seasonings), all kinds of legumes, eggs and brown rice. You can still have grains, but now they are flavorful ones like buckwheat, quinoa, millet, teff, sorghum and oats.
Going GF takes dedication and careful planning. If you do not have a gluten issue, you are under no obligation to follow it. But it can change your outlook about food, help stave-off junk food and make you pause before you take a bite. In that way, gluten-free may be the best diet around.