You’ve heard about gluten-free diets and probably even know someone who follows this latest “diet craze.” After all, gluten-free has become big business. Grocery stores are brimming with gluten-free products, and many eateries tout gluten-free menu items. Sales of gluten-free foods will hit $6.6 billion in 2017, according to market research publisher Packaged Facts. But can going gluten-free really lead to fat loss?
Just What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a combination of two proteins (gliadin and glutenin) found in the endosperm of species of wheat (including spelt, kamut, farro and bulgur), barley and rye and is formed when flour is kneaded or mixed to make dough. In addition to the gluten found naturally in flour-based products, a powdered, concentrated variation is often put in pizza dough, cereal, pasta, pastries and cookies because it acts as a binder, extends shelf life, and gives foods a doughy elasticity and chewy texture. The concentrated version is also added to many other processed foods.
Gluten isn’t bad from a nutritional perspective. It becomes an issue when people cannot properly digest it. In one condition, called celiac disease, the immune system attacks undigested gluten proteins. Antibodies go into action and the lining of the small intestines becomes inflamed. This sets off an avalanche of symptoms, including aches and pains, as well as diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating and intense fatigue.
Another more common condition is non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which is a negative reaction that occurs as the body digests the gluten. Five to 10 percent of the population has non-celiac gluten sensitivity, according to the National Institutes of Health and the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center. People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity tend to suffer symptoms similar to celiac disease, plus headaches, mental fogginess, irritability, and numbness in the legs, arms or fingers.
The solution for both conditions is the same: Remove some or all the gluten from your diet so your gut can heal and begin to absorb nutrients again. If you believe you have gluten sensitivity, you can adopt a full gluten-free diet as people diagnosed with celiac disease do. Or you can try an elimination diet, cutting out a specific gluten food or group, like pasta or bread, and monitoring your reaction.
Here’s how to do it: Choose a gluten food to cut, first recording how much of it you usually eat and when (e.g., lunch, dinner, preworkout or postworkout). Track how you feel for the hours and days after eliminating that food. Do you notice less cramping? Do you feel less wiped out after a hard workout? If there are no significant changes, try another food. Eventually, you should be able to identify the trigger gluten food(s).
If cutting out an entire food category is too daunting, reduce your normal amount by half. Often, that’s enough to produce a positive result. Your timing also may be an issue. Do your symptoms erupt right before or after a training session? Try eating less before workouts or not eating too close to training. An elimination diet may reveal that your eating habits are the real problem.
The Gluten-Free Edge
But what if you don’t have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity? Despite the marketing ploys, gluten-free eating is not a “miracle” diet. So why not simply cut carbs? Scientists have found that weight loss associated with avoiding gluten may not be related to the carb calories found in flour-based products. A recent study in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry showed that when two groups of rats were fed high-fat diets containing the same number of calories but one group was placed on a gluten-fee regimen, the gluten-free group showed less weight gain. The researchers contributed it to an up-regulation in hormones that are responsible for burning fat stores. The gluten-free group also experienced reduced markers of inflammation and insulin resistance.
But you live in the real world, not in a lab. Can going gluten-free give you an extra edge in losing fat? Yes! It can help you eat cleaner and break your appetite for high-calorie, processed foods. Going full-throttle gluten-free means skipping pizza, pasta, bread, cookies and muffins. But you also have to watch out for calorie-laden gluten-free substitutes found in boxes on the grocery shelf. A gluten-free eating plan should push you toward healthier fare: fruits and vegetables; legumes, lean meat and fish, eggs and milk products; and brown and wild rice, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth and millet. Bonus: You’ll be taking in more fiber. When you cut whole wheat from your diet, you cut a major source of dietary fiber. High-fiber lentils and beans, raspberries, strawberries and apples and vegetables such as broccoli, as well as gluten-free grains, can help regulate your digestive system and ensure proper nutrient absorption.
With a fully operational digestive system, you can better absorb the protein, carbs, vitamins, minerals and amino acids you need to feed your muscles. You’ll feel stronger and have more energy for training. More productive workouts will lead to trimming those extra pounds.