Many people need to follow a gluten-free diet for serious health reasons, like those diagnosed with celiac disease (an autoimmune disease). But some go gluten-free seeking weight loss or to test whether they have a gluten intolerance or sensitivity. In fact, the number of people without celiac disease who tried a gluten-free diet increased from 44 to 72 percent between 2009 and 2014.
Gluten is a naturally-occurring protein found in wheat, barley, spelt, and rye. Not all carb-rich foods contain gluten—for example, rice and potatoes are naturally gluten-free. The gluten-free diet is simple enough: avoid any gluten-containing foods, which are now widely marked with a Gluten-Free food label.
While the gluten-free diet has numerous benefits, if not done properly, you may also suffer from some serious side effects.
Whether you’re considering going gluten-free or are already following the restrictive diet, you should be aware of these major mistakes you can make on the diet.
A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics revealed that young adults who valued gluten-free diets showed a strong interest in overall health and nutrition—but, they were also more likely to be preoccupied with weight and to embrace unhealthy weight control behaviors such as smoking, relying on diet pills, and purging.
The 2018 study measured the value that 25- to 36-year-olds place on gluten-free foods, weight goals, weight control behavior, food production, eating behaviors, physical activity, and other criteria. Researchers noted that people often perceive that going gluten-free is a healthy choice, but the diet may not necessarily benefit overall health.
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“I think that we kind of lose part of the message when you label something as simple as that (gluten-free),” she says. “Avoiding or reducing gluten may be a good idea for many people, even people who do not have celiac disease. But it’s just as important, if not more important, to eat the right kinds of food as it is to avoid certain foods.” That means you shouldn’t be forgetting to add more healthy carbs and low-carb whole grains to your diet just as much as you should be eschewing wheat products.
Just because certain processed snack foods are “gluten-free” doesn’t mean they’re good for you. Whether cutting out gluten is truly healthy and helps people lose weight depends on the types of gluten-free foods they’re eating. When people go gluten-free, they need to be careful not to eat too many highly processed, packaged gluten-free foods instead of naturally gluten-free foods, Foroutan tells us.
For example, Fruity Pebbles are gluten-free, but does that mean the cereal is good for you? Unfortunately, many people who follow a gluten-free diet haven’t gotten the memo. A 2013 study by Mintel revealed that 65 percent of people think gluten-free foods are healthier than others, and 27 percent said the foods would help them lose weight. So be aware that just because a food has that “GF” seal, it doesn’t mean you should overdo it.
Some who try a gluten-free diet may find out that they have a gluten intolerance or sensitivity, but others who try it may not have issues with gluten at all. And if you don’t have issues with gluten, but you still lose weight on the diet, you may be misled into thinking there is a connection between the two.
“Not everyone will lose weight simply by eliminating gluten,” Foroutan says. She explains that the weight-loss link can be attributed to inflammation in the digestive tract that gluten causes for some people. So, when some people cut out gluten, it reduces that inflammation (which can cause water retention) and leads to weight loss.
All diets, including ones that restrict gluten, should be individualized. Besides celiac disease, there’s a wide spectrum of gluten sensitivity, and for anyone on a gluten-free diet, “you really need to dig in to see what they’re choosing [to eat] instead.” There may be other factors in your switch to a gluten-free diet that are actually helping you lose weight rather than avoiding gluten. Seeing a registered dietitian may help elucidate these beneficial changes.
In some cases, cutting out gluten means inadvertently lowering the intake of heart-healthy whole grains, which offer cardiovascular benefits, according to a study published in BMJ. The reduced intake of whole grains could increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, and the study’s researchers said gluten-free diets for people without celiac disease are not recommended.
Going gluten-free isn’t necessarily harmful, as long as diets focus on lots of vegetables, fruits, high-quality proteins, healthy fats, and slow-burning carbs from legumes and starchy vegetables, and don’t include too many processed foods, Foroutan reminds us. She recommends that people speak to a dietitian or nutritionist to help them find a healthy enjoyable diet.
“You can throw yourself into a tizzy trying to avoid all of the things that you’re trying to avoid,” she says. (Like these 15 Surprising Foods You Didn’t Know Had Gluten in Them.) “But focusing on avoidance is less enjoyable than focusing on what to eat more of, and if you’re not one of those people who must avoid gluten 100 percent of the time, it’s helpful to kind of get some clarity around that.”