Like Bieber fever, our obsession with Selfies, and the Deadpool movie, the excitement around gluten-free diets is sweeping the whole nation. More than that – going gluten-free is becoming a craze the whole world over, with people from every different continent suddenly cutting out bread, pasta and cereals in an attempt to lose weight, burn fat and get healthier.
Many athletes and celebrities are also singing the praises of a gluten-free diet, claiming that it’s helped them feel fitter, perform better and drop body fat, and plenty of medical professionals are recommending gluten-free from a health standpoint too, saying that it could reduce inflammation and bloating and help you live longer.
Like so many diets, if you listen to the media and the general consensus, it would seem like gluten-free is the way to go, and that you’d be a fool to do anything else. However, as is so often the case, it’s not quite that simple. While there may be benefits to going gluten-free, the vast majority of us don’t need to get rid of gluten, and doing so could not only make your diet much more difficult to manage, but also cause you to lack energy and feel run down and lethargic. Before going gluten-free, you need to know all the facts.
You won’t be surprised to hear that a gluten-free diet means you can’t eat any gluten. Gluten is actually a protein that’s present in many everyday foods (mainly wheat-based) that’s responsible for giving foods like bread their sticky, elasticated texture.
Most people know the common foods that contain gluten such as bread, muffins, cakes, cookies, pasta and snack foods such as pretzels, chips and nachos. However, there are a few more sneaky foods that many people aren’t aware of such as salad dressings, beer, some candies and cereals. Additionally, gluten is often added or hidden in foods you really wouldn’t expect – processed meat, soups and soy sauces to name just a few.
To follow a strict gluten-free diet, you have to avoid gluten in its entirety.
If you’re genuinely diagnosed with celiac disease, then it’s not a case of a gluten-free diet being beneficial; it’s a necessity. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, around 1 in 100 people worldwide have celiac disease, and for these folk, eating anything with gluten in can cause symptoms such as sickness, diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramping, swelling, bloating and long-term will lead to some very serious health conditions.
For those who aren’t diagnosed with celiac disease, it’s a bit of a gray area. Some people report that by cutting out gluten they feel more energetic, less bloated and have improved immunity. Others also lose weight, though this is likely just because they’re lowering their calorie intake by cutting out major sources of calories such as bread, pasta, pizza, microwave meals, chips and so on.
All this is purely anecdotal however, as no studies have been performed to examine whether going gluten-free really has any benefits for non-celiacs.
Perhaps the biggest con is the fact that it’s seriously difficult to follow a gluten-free diet and takes a lot of planning. Not only do you have to examine food packaging very carefully to check that what you’re buying doesn’t contain gluten, but you’ll need to make special requests at restaurants.
You’re also at risk of nutrient deficiencies, as many breads and cereals are fortified with important vitamins and minerals (particularly B vitamins) so by excluding these you’re going to need to make up for it elsewhere in your diet.
Fiber is a big concern too, as wheat is a major source of fiber in most peoples’ diets. You can get fiber from fruits and vegetables and gluten-free grains such as brown rice and quinoa, as well as beans, but this takes a lot more effort. If you fail to get adequate fiber, you could be putting yourself at risk of health complications. A 2013 study from the ‘British medical Journal’ concluded that – “Greater dietary fibre intake is associated with a lower risk of both cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease. Findings are aligned with general recommendations to increase fibre intake.” (1)
By cutting out gluten, you’ll also likely end up lowering your carbohydrate intake quite dramatically, which while potentially good for weight loss could also mean you lack energy, which leads to a drop in performance in the gym, and possibly lower energy levels and increased tiredness throughout the day.
Kick off with a couple of eggs scrambled in a little olive oil or butter with some chopped veggies and a gluten-free wrap. For lunch, go with a big mixed salad topped with grilled salmon, some chickpeas or kidney beans and a homemade dressing. You could add gluten-free croutons as well. At dinner, make a shrimp stir fry with brown rice and more mixed vegetables (just avoid the soy sauce.) Finding snacks shouldn’t be too difficult, as you can stick with simple things like boiled eggs, fruit and nuts, or get some gluten-free protein bars, or rice cakes and crackers topped with peanut butter or hummus.
Not unless you’ve been told to by your doctor, and if you think you may have celiac disease, it’s always best to get properly tested rather than self-diagnose. While some people consider themselves to be “sensitive” to gluten, a 2013 study found that gluten didn’t actually trigger symptoms to any substantial degree in most subjects who believed they had a sensitivity or intolerance. (2)
Avoiding processed foods (particularly processed carbs) that contain gluten is a fairly sound idea however, as these are major sources of calories and don’t provide as many vitamins and minerals as more nutrient-dense foods. If you want to eat carbs and lose weight, then check out “8 Powerhouse Carbs to Fire Up Fat Loss.”
The bottom line is that getting rid of some foods that contain gluten may help you feel better and lose body fat, but there’s no need to go completely gluten-free unless you have celiac disease.
Mike Samuels is an online coach, personal trainer and writer based in Southampton, UK. He specializes in training clients for fat loss and encourages a flexible approach to nutrition and training. He holds personal training and sports massage certifications from Premier Global, and is also a Precision Nutrition qualified level 1 coach.
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