Should I go gluten-free? Will gluten free help with weight loss? These are questions I hear quite frequently. The topic of gluten-free diets is a popular one. People from all walks of life are jumping on the bandwagon without really knowing why they chose the gluten-free pizza over the regular one. It just seems right? Healthier? Trendy?
If you are contemplating a gluten-free diet, the first question I want you to ask yourself is, "What is my motivation?". If considering initiating diet changes, this is always a good place to start. It is important to know where you are coming from, what ideas/preconceptions may be leading you towards this decision and what you plan to glean from these diet modifications. This may help you determine if these changes are right for you. If you have specific goals that you are hoping to achieve, ranging from taking fewer trips to the bathroom or looking foxy in horizontal stripes, do some research to evaluate the efficacy of using this intervention as a tool to help you achieve said goals. Spoiler alert: It's not the stripes but your internal monologue preventing you from being the🦊.
Should I go gluten-free for weight loss?
To be straight with you, the short answer is no. Although avoiding gluten can be helpful in relieving certain symptoms associated with gut permeability or gluten-intolerance, if your goal is weight loss than going gluten-free probably isn't the silver bullet you are looking for.
Gluten-free diets do not equal weight loss.
Yes, you may lose weight on a gluten-free diet, but that is generally not a result of the absence of gluten. That is also not the case for everyone who attempts gluten-free living. Any weight loss achieved by an individual who is now eating gluten-free is usually due to one of two things. The replacement of wheat products with more nutrient dense options. Or, the altering macronutrient composition of the meals.
Wheat products make up the bulk of the Standard American Diet. These foods displace things like vegetables, whole carbohydrate sources, healthy fats and protein. By switching to gluten-free diet you may be able to increase the quality of your food intake. The meals you previously had sandwiched between two slices of bread will now require extra vegetables, and protein to fill you up. The extra protein will keep you full and help preserve muscle mass. Loading up on vegetables will help you meet your micronutrient needs and reduce cravings.
Unfortunately, most gluten-free diets are not more nutritious.
The problem with most gluten-free diets is that they replace wheat products with gluten-free products. Gluten-free products generally lower in vitamins and minerals and have a higher glycemic response, meaning they can cause a more significant spike in blood glucose, compared to many wheat products. This is because manufacturers use highly processed starches to mimic the consistency of flour-based products. These gluten-free starches are, more often than not, devoid of nutrients, lower in fiber and higher in carbohydrate. All of which will not promote weight loss.
Though gluten-free products can be part of a healthy and balanced diet, I often find that people lean heavily on gluten-free convenience foods. They feel like these foods are inherently healthier because they are gluten-free. A gluten-free cookie should still be thought of as a cookie. This does not mean that it is bad or makes you wrong for eating it, it just means that it is, in fact, still a cookie. Will eating gluten-free cookies at every meal kill you? No. Well, I guess it depends on the timeframe, but not immediately. Will it cause significant micronutrient deficiencies? Probably quicker than you would think.
When is gluten-free appropriate?
Gluten-free diets have many therapeutic uses and can extremely healthy and beneficial to a wide range of people. There are many reasons for someone to go gluten-free, but weight loss as the end game is not one of them. If you have no gastrointestinal issues, no symptoms of gluten intolerance, no autoimmune conditions, no family history of Celiac disease, then consider that limiting your diet more than it needs to be may not be the healitiest approach.
Conditions that may benefit from a gluten-free diet:
Okay, this one is obvious. But, if you have been diagnosed with or suspect you have celiac disease removing gluten from your diet is a must. Keep in mind that the symptoms of celiac disease can be quite varied and quite severe. If you have a family history of celiac disease you are more likely to have celiac disease yourself.
While not all autoimmune conditions benefit from gluten removal, most do. Conditions like dermatitis herpetiformis, psoriasis, crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, Hashimoto's and other thyroid diseases, multiple sclerosis, and countless other AID's use the removal of gluten as part of the dietary interventions to manage the disease.
Increased Gut Permeability
This condition is caused when the epithelial cells that line the GI tract are damaged or seperate, creating tiny leaks. These leaks in the GI barrier cannot always be repaired quickly because of insults to the gut and the constant abrasion of normal digestion. When the GI barrier is not fully sealed gluten and other partially digested proteins can make their way into the bloodstream. This initiates an immune response in the body, and can lead to a phenomenon called molecular mimicry, where antibodies intended to attack gluten get confused and attack similar-looking healthy tissue instead.
Unfortunately, without eliminating highly allergenic foods it is nearly impossible to heal the gut lining, and if this process continues it can result in an autoimmune condition.
Symptoms of leaky gut include mental fog, diarrhea or constipation, bloating, gas, chronic fatigue, nutrient deficiencies despite adequate intake, skin rashes, acne, joint pain and changes in mood or anxiety levels. If you have several of these symptoms and suspect your gut lining may not be in tip top shape, I'd advise removing potentially harmful foods, including gluten, and consider starting a gut healing protocol.
GI issues may also be a symptom of gluten sensitivity, even in the absence of celiac disease. While many factors can affect your gastrointestinal health, removing gluten may be something you want to play around with in order to seek relief. Consider other factors like stress, sleep quality, travel, fluid intake, fiber intake and overall quality of your diet, before eliminating foods. If you are unable to find resolve your issues, doing an elimination diet may help you identify if gluten is actually problematic for you.
Eliminating foods should rarely be used for weight management.
While most people think the only way to maintain a healthy weight is to eliminate foods and food groups for a predetermined amount of time or until your reach that "perfect" weight, that is just plain wrong. If you have any history of dieting and weight cycling, restricting a food group is not going to help you achieve the long-term results that you are seeking.
Often times, restricting something from your diet can perpetuate moralization of foods. If you have none of the conditions listed above, then I would encourage you to eat as varied of a diet as your body will allow. For individuals without motivations other than weight loss, I advise you to reduce your consumption of flour-based products but allow yourself flexibility without restriction.
Reducing the consumption of gluten can help support GI tract health. And, if you're replacing some gluten-rich foods with vegetables and whole food carbohydrates you can increase the nutrient density of your diet, promote healthy blood sugar regulation and even support weight loss (if that's your goal). Health should be the focus, and mental health is a large part of that. So, unless you have a condition that requires elimination of all gluten, a moderate approach is generally best for most people.
Gluten free or not, try this tasty, grain-free and nutrient dense Pumpkin Bread.
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