By Janet Helm, MS, RD
Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian tweeted about giving up gluten. Lady Gaga is the latest celebrity to go on a gluten-free diet to lose weight. Everywhere you turn it seems someone is talking about the evils of gluten. Is gluten-free the new low carb?
Certainly a gluten-free diet is vitally important for individuals with celiac disease — an inherited autoimmune condition that affects about 1 out of 100 Americans. For these folks, a gluten-free diet is far from a fad. The gluten in wheat, rye, and barley can severely damage the intestines if not strictly avoided.
Beyond those with celiac, there’s another 6 percent of the population who are estimated to have a gluten sensitivity, according to registered dietitian Rachel Begun, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “We know that damage to the intestines does not occur, like we see in celiacs, but symptoms do improve when following a gluten-free diet,” she said.
Yet, celiac and gluten sensitivity are not the driving force behind the soaring rise of gluten-free foods. Instead, these foods are increasingly being gobbled up by people who want to lose weight. In reality, there’s nothing inherent about a gluten-free diet that will enhance weight loss, unless it helps you “get rid of the junk” and eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are naturally gluten-free, says registered dietitian Shelley Case, one of North America’s premier experts on the gluten-free diet.
“I’ve actually seen people gain weight on a gluten-free diet, especially if they’re relying on a lot of highly refined gluten-free products,” Case said.
Many commercially prepared gluten-free baked items often have twice the carbs and a lot of sugar and fat compared to their gluten-containing counterparts, she said. That’s because when you take out the gluten you need the extra sugar or fat to get the right taste and texture.
Even though these products are basking in the better-for-you spotlight, don’t think you’re enhancing your health by loading up your shopping cart with packages of gluten-free muffins, cakes, and cookies. “Just because it’s gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s healthier,” warns Case. Gluten-free foods offer no specific advantages, beyond the benefits for people who are diagnosed with celiac or have a gluten sensitivity. In fact, gluten-free foods are often nutritionally inferior.
Many commercially prepared gluten-free baked goods are made with refined flours and starches that are low in fiber and protein, and do not contain iron, folic acid and other B vitamins that are routinely added to wheat flour. Because many gluten-free grain products are not enriched, people with celiac often have a hard time getting enough of these key nutrients, Case said.
Several studies have shown that people following a gluten-free diet, especially when relying on commercially prepared gluten-free foods, have diets low in iron, fiber, B vitamins, calcium, and vitamin D. When Swedish researchers studied adults who had been gluten-free for 10 years, half of the patients had vitamin deficiencies, including vitamin B-6 and folate, and high levels of homocysteine (a risk factor for heart disease).
Fortunately, some manufacturers are beginning to use more nutritious, higher-fiber flours made from beans, almonds, or whole grains such as quinoa, amaranth, brown rice, and sorghum, and are starting to enrich gluten-free baked products with essential nutrients.
“There was an emphasis on getting it gluten-free without looking at the overall nutritional value, but that’s beginning to change.” Case has chronicled some of the more nutritious gluten-free products in her book Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide.
Another potential problem may be the lack of a standard definition for gluten free. FDA is expected to make a final ruling to define the claim (amount of gluten allowed in parts per million). But for now, companies are coming up with their own definition. Since gluten free is not yet legally defined, companies may not be motivated to validate their claims through testing. That will likely change once FDA makes its final ruling, which is expected by the end of 2012.
For now, some companies do routinely test their gluten-free products and attempt to reassure customers with voluntary certification programs, including those offered by the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), Celiac Sprue Association (CSA), and Canadian Celiac Association (CCA).
Once the FDA ruling is announced, the gluten-free flood gates may open even wider. Perhaps it’s the power of marketing, but when you see so many products boasting about the lack of gluten, more people will likely be convinced that these foods are healthier choices – even if they don’t have celiac or fully understand the meaning of the claim.
So if you do choose to go gluten-free, you need to pay special attention to the nutritional adequacy of your diet. Instead of buying so many prepared gluten-free grain products, make your own with some of these gluten-free whole grains: brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, teff and oats (look for pure, uncontaminated oats). And don’t just toss a product in your cart because you see gluten-free on the label.
Bottom line, a cookie is a cookie, whether gluten-free or not, says Begun. “It’s not a health food, and when eaten in excess can contribute to weight gain.”