Why A Gluten-Free Diet Isn't the Answer For Weight Loss

08/10/2015 8:47 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST
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So, you want to lose weight. You've asked your friends, family and colleagues and they've suggested a range of remedies, books, pills and diets. A gluten-free diet might be one that you haven't tried before, but are now considering due to the number of testimonials you've heard. But does it result in true, long term weight loss, or will it just be another quick fix?

Let me give you the answer up front: a review undertaken by Dr Gaesser and Dr Angadi this year found that "no published experimental evidence supports a weight loss claim for a gluten-free diet or suggests that the general population would be better off by avoiding gluten."

So why have sales of gluten-free products increased by up to 30 percent over the past 5 years? I believe that the reason some people may misconstrue a gluten-free diet for a weight loss diet could be:

1. Mindful eating

Research shows that following any diet can generally achieve short-term weight loss as it involves the practice of mindful eating. If you are more focused on what you can and can't eat, you're much less likely to graze. Naturally you'll become a lot more aware of the quantity and quality of the foods you consume, so will typically eat less.

2. Reduced bloating

If you have un-diagnosed Irritable Bowel Syndrome you may experience a reduction in bloating. The main source of gluten in our diet is wheat. Wheat contains fructans and inulin which are 'Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols' (FODMAPs). These contribute to Irritable Bowel Syndrome. By reducing your wheat intake, you'll simultaneously be reducing your FODMAP load, which can reduce bloating, making your stomach appear flatter. So, it may not be the gluten in wheat that's the problem, but the FODMAPs.

3. Less processed foods

Gluten is often found in foods such as biscuits, bars and pre-prepared meals, as well as being incorporated into many commercially made and restaurant meals. By following a gluten-free diet, many people simultaneously reduce their intake of eating out, take away and processed foods. This is a great thing to do and will benefit your weight, without the need to cut out gluten.

Instead of focusing on a gluten-free diet for weight loss, I recommend that you take these principles and focus on mindful eating, seeing a dietitian if you experience any bloating or gastrointestinal upsets, and reducing your intake of processed foods. You'll still get the benefits, but without the need to restrict your gluten intake.

So, why not just delete gluten from your diet? Do we really need it?

Obviously people with coeliac disease and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity need to cut gluten out of their diets; so it's not an essential nutrient. However, gluten contributes to the viscosity and extensibility of products, and with the addition of yeast in baking products, gluten allows the product to rise. In fact, the removal of gluten generally alters the composition to such a degree that the product tends to be more dry and dense.

Consequently, when gluten is removed, manufacturers often add sugar and fat to make them more palatable. Gluten-free products are often higher in kilojoules than their gluten-containing counterparts and therefore in reality may contribute to unintentional weight gain.

Furthermore, research suggests that gluten-free diets may be less nutritious than gluten-containing diets. For example, a study by Dr Shepherd and Prof Gibson published in 2013 found that people following a gluten-free diet were more likely to have deficiencies in folate, calcium, iron and zinc than the general Australian population and, as such, recommended that gluten-free products may need to be fortified with additional micronutrients. So, why would you expose yourself to a possible reduction in nutrients unless you needed to?

Research suggests that gluten, along with the fructans and inulin also found in wheat, have positive impacts on our gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome has been found to be beneficial for long-term weight maintenance as well as reducing our risk of other types of chronic disease.

Although many people need to follow a gluten-free diet for health reasons and can do so healthily under the guidance of their dietitian, it's not something I would recommend for weight management.

This blog first appeared in October 2015.


Read more of Melanie at her website.

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