Celebrities from Gwyneth Paltrow to Miley Cyrus have embraced a gluten-free lifestyle to shed pounds and trim their waistlines. Does this mean eliminating gluten will help you keep up with Kim Kardashian (yes, she's gluten free, too) to achieve a slimmer physique or drop a few dress sizes?
A gluten-free diet is essential for the 1 in 133 Americans with celiac disease, an autoimmune digestive ailment. Gluten, a protein found in certain grains - including wheat, rye and barley - causes serious nutritional deficiencies for celiac sufferers. They must avoid gluten, because it triggers a painful stomach reaction and can damage the intestines.
Gluten-free isn't just popular for celiac sufferers these days. It's the big thing in the dieting world.
Is this a diet that actually works?
April Schetler, MS, RD, a Virtua nutrition counselor, says there are a few benefits. For example, it encourages people to read food labels and inspect ingredients. "Individuals may eat more fresh food, like fruits, vegetables and lean protein, because they're naturally gluten free."
However, research has not proven this lifestyle is beneficial for everyone. In fact, it may be worse.
Many prepackaged bread, cookies, snacks, and sauces are advertised as gluten free, but they contain more sugar, fat and preservatives. Manufacturers will use sweeteners and fats - like butter, buttermilk and cream - to add flavor in place of gluten.
"Just because a food product says it's gluten free, doesn't automatically mean it's a healthier choice by any means," says Schetler. "People tend to assume that as long as a food is labeled gluten free, it is ok to eat in endless quantities. You may be eating twice the volume your body can handle."
A gluten-free diet may be taxing on your finances as well.
"Since many don't understand exactly what gluten-free is, they'll pay more if they see it on a label," says Schetler. "I've seen fruit and vegetable packs that say 'gluten free,' and I'm sure people will pay more for them. They don't realize that fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten free."
What's the alternative?
All food can have a place in your diet but at the right amount. Gluten products such as bread and cereal have nutritional iron, fiber and other minerals and vitamins your body needs. It's not wise to cut those out completely, says Schetler.
"The real building blocks of losing or maintaining weight have not changed," she adds. "It's the amount of calories you take in versus the amount of calories your body is able to burn. If you're eating in moderation and getting some exercise every week, managing your weight becomes easier."
Avoid the hype from celebrities or other fad diets that offer ridiculous promises or guarantees, cautions Schetler.
"It's a red flag if a diet claims it will help you lose a bunch of weight in a short period of time," she says. "It's hard to sustain. I'd rather teach people how to eat the right foods, at the right times, and encourage them to move more. The bulk of your diet should come from colorful fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, low fat dairy, and whole grains … now that's a diet you can stick to."