Gluten-Free Myths: Dispelling Misconceptions About the Latest Dietary Scapegoat
By Kurtis Bright
The Gluten-Free Fad Doesn’t Seem to Be Going Away, So Here Are Some Facts
If you’re like millions of Americans, you might be thinking about hopping on the gluten-free bandwagon.
Perhaps you’ve read one too many stories about celebrities who have lost dramatic weight by cutting carbs. Or perhaps you’ve simply given up on living a normal life because you have an annoying co-worker who won’t shut up about being gluten-free themselves, and you figure, hey, if you can’t beat them, join them.
Well, before you drink the (gluten-free!) Kool-Aid, here are a few myths surrounding gluten.
- Myth #1: Gluten is terrible and it must stamped out before it kills again - It is considered received knowledge among the trendy and the gullible that gluten is a newly discovered deadly substance that ruthlessly seeks to make you fat and possibly stab you to death in your sleep. This is only a slight exaggeration. While gluten can have a negative effect on people with Celiac disease as well as on people with other levels of gluten intolerance, the truth is that the vast majority of people have no such sensitivity. We’re talking less than one percent of Americans. However that isn’t stopping people from self-diagnosing with something that has been termed “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” which, to all appearances, seems to be little more than a cry for attention from those who have more money than sense. But the dubious nature of the "diagnosis" isn't stopping the marketing behemoth that is the gluten-free sector of the food industry from cashing in. However, here’s the simple truth: gluten is a naturally occurring protein that is found in wheat and other grains like barley and rye that is not threatening at all to 99 percent of people--neither in terms of causing illness, nor in terms of making you fat. As always, weight loss comes with no magic bullet: reducing caloric intake and increasing calories burned is how it works, folks. Always has, always will. Those with Celiac disease experience stomach pain and bloating if they eat even trace amounts of it, but for the rest of us, it’s just another component of food.
- Myth #2: Gluten-free is not the same as wheat-free - Often people think that by giving up white bread and flour and replacing it with whole-grain versions they have successfully turned away the scourge of gluten. No. Once again, gluten is found in not only wheat and spelt, but also rye and barley. And to review, these grains in their whole, organic form are not inherently bad dietary choices. Whole grains contain more fiber and usually have a lower glycemic index than the refined version, so they help you feel fuller for longer. Switching to whole grains may even contribute to weight loss, in tandem with other dietary changes like reducing caloric intake and getting more exercise. But cutting out wheat products is not the same as “going gluten-free.” And while we’re on the topic:
- Myth #3: A gluten-free diet alone will lead to dramatic weight loss - The trend-setters and their minions like to tout tales of Hollywood stars who lost eye-popping amounts of weight for upcoming film roles by switching to a gluten-free diet, but there are almost always other factors involved. For starters, you have to keep in mind the collateral effects of giving up gluten: in a gluten-free diet, highly refined carb items like bagels, donuts, crackers, pasta, etc. are gone too. And these are foods that we already recognize are detrimental to maintaining a healthy body weight. By substituting whole grains for refined flour products, along with introducing more vegetables and high protein foods, you automatically reduce the amount of high-glycemic foods you’re eating. Keep in mind too that going on any kind of serious diet--such as those that film stars adopt in pursuit of multi-million dollar roles--automatically implies that you are restricting calories, or at least keeping a strict count of calories consumed. Studies show that simply by being aware of the number of calories in the foods we eat, we tend to reduce how much we eat. A kitchen scale is your best friend in the battle of the bulge, not a pyre made of everything wheat. Thirdly, when we are assessing the miracle weight loss programs of the glitterati, don’t forget that every one of them has at least one dietician if not more, along with at least one personal trainer if not a whole stable of them. High-dollar movie stars also have the luxury of embarking on a three to six-month weight loss and exercise program prior to shooting in which the entirety of their JOB consists of getting in shape. It’s just silly and frankly irresponsible for these folks to go on talk shows and tout fad diets like gluten-free eating when they’ve also been working out with a professional trainer six hours a day, six days a week for three months or more prior to shooting their films, and enjoying meals prepared for them by professional chefs under the auspices of dieticians. It is equally foolish for us to think there is some short cut.
So for people who don’t have Celiac disease or other gluten sensitivity, feel free to eat all the expensive gluten-free products you want--or however much you can afford. But let’s not fool ourselves: eating sensible portions of natural, unrefined, whole foods without a lot of added sugar, along with taking up a sensible exercise program is the only real path to weight loss and health.