IS GLUTEN MAKING US FAT?

The truth about gluten, the food industry, and your  belly
By Matthew Solan

Turkey and tomato on wheat. Whole-grain pasta. Healthy, right? Maybe. But  more and more people believe these foods are parts of a potentially disastrous  trap. They claim that sluggishness and weight gain can be blamed on an insidious  substance hiding in wheat and many other common grains: gluten.
Avoiding  gluten has become big business. Sales of gluten-free products grew about 30  percent a year from 2006 to 2010, and will hit $3.9 billion by next year,  according to the market research company Packaged Facts. Supermarket shelves are  filled with gluten-free breads, soups, and cake mixes—even gluten-free ketchup  and soy sauce. According to market research firm Mintel, 10 percent of new foods  launched in 2010 featured a “gluten-free” claim, up from only 2 percent 5 years  earlier.
NFL quarterback Drew Brees won a Super Bowl while on a  gluten-free diet. Cyclist Tom Danielson, a record-breaking member of the  Garmin-Transitions team, says his training and racing have improved since he and  his teammates went gluten-free over a year ago.
Have most common whole  grains been acting as insidious nutritional double agents all these years? Or  are they essential components of a healthy diet? Let’s separate the wheat from  the chaff.

What is gluten, anyway? How does it affect the body?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, as well as in many  common food additives. It’s what gives dough its elasticity and baked goods  their satisfying chewiness. But for people with celiac disease—a type of  autoimmune disorder—eating foods that contain gluten can lead to a cascade of  nasty reactions, including damage to the small intestine, poor nutrient  absorption, diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, anemia, and fatigue. Celiac  disease is surprisingly common, affecting about one in every 133 people,  according to an often-cited 2003 study from the University of Maryland center  for celiac research. There is no cure for celiac disease and no drugs that can  treat it; you can only manage the condition, by sticking to a gluten-free diet  for the rest of your life.
Even if you don’t have celiac disease, gluten  may still be bad for you, says Lara Field, M.S., R.D., a dietitian at the  University of Chicago’s celiac disease center. A rising percentage of people in  the United States consider themselves “gluten-sensitive.” “These people may have  a food intolerance or experience many celiac-type symptoms after consuming foods  that contain gluten,” says Field. Some may have a form of wheat allergy. If you  think you may have symptoms of a gluten intolerance, you can ask your doctor  about scheduling a blood test to find out for sure. You can also check out The  Gluten Connection, which has a simple self-test that can help you  identify gluten intolerance, along with a complete eating plan that’ll help you  go gluten-free with ease.

Should I avoid eating gluten even if I don’t have problems with it?

Gluten is also shunned by another group: People who simply think gluten  encourages weight gain and who claim to feel more energetic when they don’t  consume it. They say humans didn’t evolve the ability to digest certain  domesticated grains containing gluten, and that avoiding gluten leads to more  energy, better absorption of nutrients, and loss of excess weight.
Allen  Lim, Ph.D., a former exercise physiologist for Garmin-Transitions, believes that  going gluten-free has helped his team perform at a higher level. So does  Danielson, who, like any competitive cyclist, burns—and eats—an immense number  of calories and pays close attention to what seems to work. “After I started the  diet, I had better results. I didn’t feel as fatigued, and my recovery period  was quicker,” says Danielson, who puts in 6-plus hours during a typical training  session.
But this is anecdotal evidence; mainstream research still hasn’t  substantiated the claims of those who believe gluten is bad for everyone. “There  is no strong scientific evidence to support the assertion that avoiding gluten  leads to benefits for the general population,” says Tricia Thompson, M.S., R.D.,  author of The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide and the website glutenfreedietitian.com.
Still,  cutting out gluten can lead to weight loss—but not for the reason gluten-free  advocates think. A strict gluten-free diet forces you to stay away from some  refined carbohydrates that can lead to weight gain, Field explains. And that,  she says, is where the weight-loss secret lies.
Gluten is found in many  of the familiar weight-gain culprits: pizza, beer, burgers, pancakes. “Gluten  itself probably isn’t the reason you’ve packed on pounds,” says  Field.
“Eating too many refined carbohydrates is what expands your  waistline.” Commit to staying gluten-free and your food choices can become a  snapshot of healthy eating—fruits, vegetables, brown rice, seeds and nuts, along  with meat, fish, eggs, and milk products.
Avoiding gluten also means  you’re likely to adopt other whole grains and flours that lack gluten, such as  buckwheat, quinoa, millet, teff, sorghum, and wild rice (which is not related to  white rice). These aren’t necessarily healthier options than gluten-rich wheat,  barley, or rye, but consuming a wider range of grains gives you even more  nutritional variety in your diet. (See “The New Power Grains,” on the next  page.) That’s another good thing.

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