Is Gluten the Bad Guy or Just Misunderstood?

By Megan Lattin, MS, RD – 

Rumors about gluten have been spreading like wild fire, deteriorating its reputation, and ruining any chance it had at becoming prom king. So is there really fuel behind this fire or is it just all smoke and mirrors?

The Smoke

If you google the definition of gluten you will find descriptions like “the substance in wheat and flour that holds dough together” or “the substance found in cereal grains that cause digestive disorders such as celiac disease.” While all true, these vague definitions lead to ambiguous understandings and misconceptions on what gluten really is. Gluten is a combination of proteins that are naturally, AKA not added through food processing, found in the plant structure of wheat and related grain species, including barley, rye, and spelt.  Dough is formed when the flours of these grains are mixed with water and gluten is what allows the dough to keep its shape after rising.

The Fire

So why did gluten get such a bad rap? Our body’s immune system protects us by producing antibodies (proteins) to certain antigens (also proteins).  Allergies are caused by immune disorders in which the body messed up (accidents happen) and created an antibody to a certain allergen. Allergens are, yes you said it, proteins. Although nearly any food is capable of causing an allergic reaction (because foods contain protein), only eight foods account for 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions in the United States: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks your small intestine in response to ingestion of gluten (it’s a fancy name for gluten allergy). It affects about one in every 140 (unfortunate) Americans. Notice that there is no peanut allergy disease. Diseases are chronic- meaning long lasting and reoccurring. If you’re allergic to peanuts they’re not something you dabble in, well unless you’re feeling like taking a trip to the Emergency Room. If someone with celiac disease has a bite of pasta Saturday night, he/she may end up extremely uncomfortable, but they will not likely need medical assistance.

The Gluten Free Diet & Weight Loss

If you’re considering going gluten free as a wait-loss technique and wondering if it will work? My answer is yes! Well, only if you don’t purchase all of your favorite foods in the gluten free forms (that’s right, you name it and they make it- consumer demand my friends) because these tend to have just about the same amount of calories as the product without the gluten removed. So now you’re just paying extra for the right to say you don’t eat gluten (excuse us all while we bow down to you, you trendy dieter you) meanwhile the scale isn’t budging because you aren’t burning extra calories. In order to lose 1lb of fat you have to burn a deficit of 3,500 calories… That’s a lot of calorie cutting.

The Bottom Line

If you’re still set on losing weight by swearing off gluten (there are better ways, I promise), first be sure to spend hours researching the food lists because items you wouldn’t suspect such as soy sauce, pickles, hot dogs, veggie burgers, most salad dressings, and many more will be off limits. Second, be sure to call ahead to any restaurants to interrogate the hostess about gluten free menu options–congrats you are officially annoying. Thirdly, and most importantly, please do NOT amount your weight loss to not eating gluten. The weight loss comes from denying yourself of a very long list of foods, thus consuming fewer calories than usual. So don’t hate the player, hate the game and don’t bad mouth the gluten. End the bullying. Check out this hilarious segment on Jimmy Kimmel “Pedestrian Question- What is Gluten?”

Megan Lattin, MS, RD.

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