Gluten-free is world's biggest diet trend. But does it really work for weight loss? Here are the facts (and surprising benefits) you need to know. By Sunny Sea Gold, REDBOOK.
It used to be that a gluten-free diet was only recommended for those with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which exposure to gluten--a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye--can cause damage to the lining of the small intestine. But according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, this is only about 1 percent of Americans, so why is "g-free" now a $6.1 billion industry? Because a whole lot of people are deciding to avoid gluten based on hunches and hype. We got some info to eat by.
Where is gluten found, anyway?
Most obviously, it's in bread, pancakes, pasta, and crackers. But gluten is also used to add flavor and texture to a weird array of other foods, from salad dressings and ketchups to turkey sausage and soup mixes. Some experts think that this gluten glut may have had a hand in quadrupling the prevalence of celiac disease over the last 50 years. "In the past, we may have had mac and cheese for dinner," says registered dietitian Ashley Koff, coauthor of the book Mom Energy. "But we weren't also getting gluten in our beverages and our dessert or in our lunch. It could just be too much."
Do g-free foods have fewer calories?
Quite the opposite. "I see people gaining weight when they switch to gluten-free," says Beverly Hills dietitian Rachel Beller, author of Eat to Lose, Eat to Win. "One client recently came in and had gained 16 pounds. Gluten is what makes things chewy and yummy, so manufacturers have to try to find other ways to make the food taste good, usually by adding fat." Compare: For 100 calories, you can have 50 regular pretzel sticks--or 35 gluten-free ones.
So is "g-free" just a silly trend?
Not entirely. "There's definitely a fad component," says Koff, "but we do have a huge number of people saying, anecdotally, 'I feel better when I live without it.'" Doctors have come to believe there is such a thing as "gluten sensitivity," which can cause the same symptoms that celiac disease does: headaches, bloating, and fatigue. It's just that a lot of people self-diagnose themselves as gluten-intolerant based on hype, without a doctor confirming that they have the condition. And unlike with celiac disease, there is no test to diagnose sensitivity.
Related: 25 Lazy Ways to Stay Skinny
Still, what's the harm in switching?
Besides shelling out bucks for gluten-free products you don't need, some of these foods may have less fiber than those they're replacing, Koff says, and may be missing nutrients such as vitamin B and iron. So if you're taking this route, it's important to balance your nutrients by also eating enough whole foods like beans and quinoa.
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