Should I go gluten free to lose weight?
One in three Americans is now going “gluten free” according to a recent survey. It is interesting that 33% of Americans are excluding gluten from their diets, while only 1% of Americans actually have celiac disease, an autoimmune disease caused from wheat gluten.
Other wheat problems include non-celiac gluten sensitivity which is estimated at 1-6% and less than 1% of the population have documented wheat allergies.
As a cardiologist I am frequently asked by my patients, “should I go gluten free?” In this article I share my experience with going gluten free and explore the reasons for and against going gluten free to lose weight.
My Gluten Free Experience
As many of you know, at the age of 44 I found myself overweight, suffering from multiple chronic medical conditions, and on five medications. Even as a doctor I did not know where to turn next for help.
I thought that at least if I could lose some weight my health would improve. I tried reducing what I ate each day but I was not losing any weight. The diet thing just was not working for me. I was hungry all of the time and the free donuts in the doctor’s dining lounge of my hospital kept calling to me.
At that time it was very popular among my cardiology colleagues to go gluten free. In my desperation, I thought that going gluten free might also help me. My “gluten free” colleagues all challenged me to give it a “30 day test” to see whether or not I felt better. I thought that since 1-6% of Americans are gluten sensitive, perhaps dropping gluten could help me to feel better as well.
I was excited about the prospect. Yet, just two days into my first attempt at going gluten free, I caved in. My donut, bagel, and pizza withdrawals were too great. I obsessed about the forbidden foods and never felt satisfied with the meals I did eat. With these overpowering cravings, I definitely did not feel any better in the short term. So, almost as soon as I began, I decided to give up.
Two months later, still feeling not very well, I decided to give the gluten free diet another try. This time, I decided to imagine that I had “gluten antibodies” and that I was destroying my body with each donut, bagel, and slice of pizza. In reality, I did not have “gluten antibodies,” but my approach worked to some degree—I lost 10 pounds after two months.
After two months I did not lose any more weight and did not feel much better. While giving up the junk food helped initially, it wasn’t long before I found gluten free alternative junk food for everything that I craved–cookies, pizza, bagels, you name it. With the re-entry of these foods came the re-gaining of the weight.
Why are so many people having problems with gluten?
Unfortunately, the wheat we eat today is not the wheat our grandparents or great-grandparents ate. Modern wheat is packed with gluten, far more than what our ancestors ate. Also, modern wheat is in countless processed food products. The toxicities from gluten-loaded wheat and all of the pesticides and other chemicals used in the wheat growing process are triggering many people to develop gluten sensitivities, food allergies to wheat, and full-blown celiac disease.
Celiac Disease is Four Times More Common Today
Celiac disease is increasing at an epidemic rate. For example, from a recently published study, undiagnosed celiac disease has increased 4 times among Air Force recruits in the last 50 years.
In this study, researchers went back to 9,133 frozen blood samples from Air Force recruits saved from 1948 to 1954 and tested them for gluten antibodies. They then tested for antibodies to gluten in a modern day similarly matched group of 12,768 people. Based on their findings, people are now more than 4 times likely to have antibodies to gluten (celiac disease).
We still do not know why so many more people are developing celiac disease today. Theories range from the increased amounts of gluten we are eating to C-sections to antibiotics to a changing gut flora from our modern life.
Is gluten free healthy?
Is eating a gluten free diet healthier than one with gluten? The short answer is: it depends. If you have antibodies to gluten (celiac disease) of course you will want to avoid gluten. For many people who may not have celiac disease, but are gluten sensitive, going gluten free will likely help with your gastrointestinal challenges.
For the rest of us, whether or not gluten free is healthy or not really depends on what you eat instead. If your diet stays the same except that you now eat gluten free varieties of the same processed foods, then you haven’t really gained anything. You may even be worse off.
On the other hand, if you replace wheat gluten with fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, or wild fish it could be incredibly healthy. The problem with the Standard American Diet is that we eat too many processed grains, including wheat flour. This processed grain overload is a significant cause of our obesity epidemic.
Even if you tolerate gluten, it may be a good idea to limit the wheat gluten you do choose to eat, considering how much more gluten is in today’s wheat. For example, non-gluten whole grains such as quinoa could be a healthier option. Alternatively, if you really do like wheat, like me, try choosing low glycemic sprouted “whole grain” varieties, like Ezekiel Bread, that are not made with wheat flour. You can buy Ezekiel products at most health food stores.
Should I go gluten free to lose weight?
For most people, going gluten free does not cause them to lose weight. Now that going gluten free is so popular, you can find whatever junk food you crave in gluten free forms. These highly processed gluten free products may even be worse for you than the wheat they were meant to replace. In fact, I have seen patients actually gain weight eating these “gluten free” junk food options.
The only way to make gluten free a good weight loss option is to replace your processed grains (flour) with real food. If you can replace your grains and processed foods with appropriate portions of real food, physical activity, restorative sleep, and stress management you will see your weight drop quickly.
My Gluten Rules
1. If you have celiac disease, religiously avoid gluten. As many people have undiagnosed celiac disease, I recommend gluten antibody testing for everyone. Talk with your doctor about getting tested.
2. If you think you might have gluten sensitivity, try going gluten free for 30 days. If you feel better off gluten then you probably have a gluten sensitivity.
3. If you have an unexplained medical condition, there is a chance you could have an undiagnosed wheat allergy. Once again, try going off gluten for 30 days to see if things improve.
4. Even if you don’t have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or a wheat allergy, most likely your diet and health could benefit by eating less or different grains. Try cutting back or mixing up the grains you do eat. If you love your wheat, avoid the high glycemic wheat flour which is just like sugar to the body. Try real whole grain sprouted Ezekiel bread which does not have any flour.
5. If you decide to go gluten free for whatever reason, replace the wheat with fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, or wild fish not the highly processed gluten free food products.
6. If you have a question about gluten issues, please talk with your doctor.