Who’s going gluten-free? The Girl Scouts are selling a gluten-free cookie this year. You can now mix up your cocktail with gluten-free vodka. Even Trader Joe’s joked that they have a gluten-free greeting card on sale for 99 cents! While the buzz of gluten-free products grows and celebrities’ endorsements continue, the question remains, will avoiding gluten help you lose weight?

What the heck is gluten anyway? Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, and therefore found in pasta, bread, flour, tortillas, cookies, muffins, cereal, crackers, beer, oats, gravy, dressings, and sauces. For those diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity or condition called celiac disease, avoiding this protein is essential for health.

Why do some people lose weight on a gluten-fre diet? As you can see, gluten is found in a plethora of products. Weight loss often occurs due to the sheer number of foods that have been removed from the diet. In addition, as dieters pay closer attention to their diet, they also tend to increase their intake of whole, more nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables. The healthier diet is responsible for weight loss, not gluten avoidance.

What’s hiding in gluten-free foods? When foods like breads and cereals are eliminated, these former staples are missed and dieters turn to gluten-free versions. Unfortunately, these gluten-free aliases often contain extra fat, salt or sugar to make up for the missingflavor and texture that gluten provides. An example: one serving of regular pretzels contains 108 calories and 1 gram of fat compared to 140 calories and 6 grams of fat in gluten-free. In addition, gluten-free products are costly. The average cost of whole-wheat bread is $2.99 compared to $5.49 for the gluten-free version.

Are there benefits of gluten-containing foods? Whole grain foods, such as whole wheat bread, pasta, crackers and cereals have been associated with lower risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. In terms of weight management, whole grains are a good source of fiber, a nutrient that is associated with weight loss and can help people feel full.  Finally, whole grains are rich in B vitamins and iron; two important nutrients for normal metabolism and energy.

How practical is avoiding gluten?  Individuals diagnosed with celiac disease will be the first to attest that going gluten free isn’t easy.  Gluten is often a hidden ingredient in foods such as soy sauce, lunchmeat, beer, soup bases, chocolate, and salad dressing, requiring tedious label reading and long hours logged in the grocery store. Social eating at a restaurant or at a family/friend’s house can be challenging as well.

What should I do if I think I have a gluten-sensitivity? If you suspect you have a gluten sensitivity, don’t self diagnose. A simple blood test can provide you with answers. Self-diagnosing often masks other health conditions.

Summary: For those diagnosed with a gluten/wheat intolerance, following a gluten-free diet is a life-saver- it alleviates symptoms and significantly improves health. However, if you hope those gluten-free Girl Scout will help you lose weight, I would advise not buying tempting foods at all or hiding the tasty gluten-containing cookies (ie: thin mints) in your freezer!

Helpful definitions:
Wheat allergy: allergic to the proteins in wheat; not specific to gluten alone – easier to follow than gluten free and tends to affect less than 0.1% of the population

Gluten sensitivity: heightened immune response to gluten in genetically susceptible people (symptoms – gi distress, fatigue, headaches, gas, bloating, diarrhea.

Celiac: autoimmune destruction to the small bowel, gluten found in wheat, barley and rye – malabsorption, more serious consequences – life long gluten free diet is the only way to treat the condition

Jennifer McDaniel

Jennifer McDaniel is a Registered Dietitian, Media Spokesperson, and co-author of Prevention's Mediterranean Table Cookbook. She and her team of Registered Dietitians aim to help their clients go further, make change last, and unlock their potential. She lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband, and three young sons. If you are interested in working with Jennifer, please visit our contact page.