The Truth About Gluten-Free Diets

by Kari Hartel, RD, LD
Program Coordinator, Cooking Matters, Operation Food Search

The New Year brings good intentions of eating healthy and getting more exercise. Many people make New Year’s resolutions based on improving their health in some way. All too often there are dozens of new diet fads that pop up, promising fast results with little effort. One diet that has become increasingly more popular is the gluten-free diet. Long gone are the days of the low-carb diet craze as gluten-free diets have taken over as the trendy new fad diet.  But before you jump on the gluten-free bandwagon, make sure you are properly informed.

Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley and rye. People who have celiac disease must stick to a lifelong gluten-free diet to avoid serious medical complications.

Food manufacturers have picked up on the gluten-free trend and are hurriedly churning out more products to keep up with the escalating demand.  In the past, people looking for gluten-free items had to visit special health food stores. Gluten-free foods used to be few and far between, but now even mainstream supermarkets are expanding their selection of these trendy items. While celiac disease affects less than 1% of the population, it is estimated that 15-25% of people want to buy gluten-free foods. This means that many people who do not have celiac disease are unnecessarily avoiding gluten.

However, going gluten-free could have a downside because there are several nutrient deficiencies that are common among people following this diet. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics concludes that, “adherence to the gluten-free dietary pattern may result in a diet that is high in fat and low in carbohydrates and fiber, as well as low in iron, folate, niacin, vitamin B-12, calcium, phosphorus and zinc.” This is largely attributed to the fact that the diet is so restrictive and most gluten-free foods are made from refined flours (stripped of many important nutrients during the refining process). Therefore, people with celiac disease need to be sure to eat enough whole grains that are naturally gluten-free, such as brown rice, wild rice, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth or millet, or choose products that are enriched to ensure nutritional adequacy.

While some celebrities swear by the gluten-free diet for weight loss, any weight loss they’ve experienced is simply due to ingesting fewer calories, not a magical side effect of avoiding gluten. In fact, some people who embark on a gluten-free diet find that they unintentionally gain weight because manufacturers of gluten-free foods tend to add fat and sugar to improve their flavor, and this increases the calorie content. Additionally, gluten-free products are often very expensive. Unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, it’s not necessary to avoid gluten, and likely the only thing that will be slimmer as a result of embarking on this fad diet is your wallet.

Kari Hartel, RD, LD is the Program Coordinator, Cooking Matters at Operation Food Search. You can call her at 314.726.5355 ext. 22, email: kari.hartel@OperationFoodSearch.org or visit online at www.OperationFoodSearch.org.