Lately, a very popular health craze seems to be following a gluten free diet to try help you to lose a few kilos. The question is, is it specifically avoiding gluten that is causing the weight loss or are there other factors that should be considered?
We first need to understand what gluten actually is. Gluten is a type of protein found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley. It plays a role of helping foods to maintain their shape by acting as an ‘elastic’. It is necessary for some people to refrain from gluten due to an allergy or an intolerance. This includes people with Celiac disease, a medical condition where the intestine is damaged by gluten. There are no accurate estimates of the incidence of this in South Africa but it occurs in approximately 1 % of the population in Western countries. For those that have Celiac disease, it is essential to strictly maintain a gluten-free diet, as the resulting intestinal damage can hinder the ability to absorb vital nutrients. Another form of intolerance is non-celiac gluten sensitivity where symptoms like diarrhoea, bloating, fatigue, and joint pain are experienced without intestinal damage. A wheat allergy also makes avoiding gluten necessary to prevent skin, respiratory or gastrointestinal reactions. These conditions can be discovered by doing certain blood tests.
So does staying away from gluten cut calories and should everyone go gluten free? It seems unnecessary to stress about cutting out something entirely if you medically don’t need to. Removing gluten itself is unlikely to be solely responsible for the shift on the scale. It is probably due to any changes made to meals or removing foods from the diet as a result of going gluten free. An example of this could be that you stopped eating a number of high energy foods containing gluten such as biscuits and cakes, and instead started including more vegetables and fruit in your diet. The weight loss experienced will then be due to reduced intake of energy, sugar and fat as a result of those changes. But if you chose to replace the biscuits and cakes with gluten-free versions then you may be no better off as they usually contain as much energy, possibly more.
It seems practical to simply focus on moderation and balance when it comes to healthy eating. When choosing wheat/grain products rather focus on quality- choose whole grain/ high fibre options over more refined/processed options. You can also try to vary the types of carbohydrates you choose in the day. Instead of always choosing bread as your starchy food at every meal, you can remember naturally gluten free options such as oats, rice and quinoa as well. A gluten-free diet can also be deficient in certain nutrients so it is important that your diet is balanced enough to meet your needs and prevent deficiencies. Aiming for variety makes more sense, instead of denying yourself the things you really want (unless you medically have to).