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Is Your Gluten-Free Diet Fueling Other Bad Habits?

The popular diet may not be as beneficial as you think.
Gluten free foods

Gluten-free diets remain popular with people seeking improved health and weight loss. After all, we bet at least one person you know has cut out wheat for the sake of dropping a few pounds. However, did you know that going gluten-free could actually fuel bad health habits?

What is gluten, and who should go gluten-free?

Gluten is a specific, 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.

A gluten-free diet is essential for people with a gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy, or celiac disease (an autoimmune disease), but the diet is common among Americans without these conditions. The number of people without celiac disease who are on a gluten-free diet increased from 44 percent in 2009 to 72 percent by 2014. While these folks aren't medically required to go gluten-free, they often do for reasons such as weight loss.

The gluten-free health halo effect.

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.

What's more, 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.

Robin Foroutan, an integrative medicine dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells us that gluten-free doesn't always equal health. She compares the trend to the fat-free craze of the 1980s and '90s.

"I think that we kind of lose part of the message when you label something as simple as that (gluten-free)," she said. "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."

Not everyone will lose weight simply by eliminating gluten, Foroutan said, explaining 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.

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"Weight loss is true in a sense for some people but may not be true for everyone, and it also matters how you execute the gluten-free diet, just like any other diet," she said.

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 instead."

Gluten-free food choices matter.

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 said.

RELATED: Learn how to fire up your metabolism and lose weight the smart way.

However, packaged gluten-free foods remain popular. The global gluten-free products market was valued at $4.7 billion in 2017, and it's expected to reach $7.6 billion by 2024, according to a Zion Market Research report. Many processed foods are high in sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, sodium, and artificial ingredients.

In some cases, cutting out gluten means a lower 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 diet that is enjoyable.

"You can throw yourself into a tizzy trying to avoid all of the things that you're trying to avoid," she said. "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."

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Erica Sweeney
Erica Sweeney is a freelance food, nutrition, and wellness writer. Read more
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