Is Gluten Free for Me?

Ryan McWilliams, MD, is a gastroenterologist at Banner Health Clinic,  Gastroenterology in Greeley, Colo. If you have any questions on this topic, please consult with your physician. To schedule an appointment with Dr. McWilliams, call (970) 378-4475.

Question: Is a gluten-free diet for me?

Answer: The true benefit of being gluten-free is to prevent the health risks of gluten exposure in people who have diseases such as celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or eosinophilic esophagitis.  If people with these conditions consume gluten-containing foods they can have significant problems with their overall health and thus it must be avoided at all costs and this is why the gluten-free diet exists. 

Gluten is a protein found in wheat and related grains as well as barley and rye.  It is the substance that serves as the glue for baked goods to make them light and fluffy.

Lately however, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of gluten-free diets for weight loss as some believe they are beneficial.  People often do lose weight on these diets because overall they are making healthier choices and cutting out a lot of foods they were previously eating. People who choose to be gluten-free often find that they have more energy, have less bloating and experience improvement in their overall digestive health.

However, there are drawbacks to initiating a gluten-free diet. For one, there are not as many gluten-free options and these are often more expensive.  In terms of the diet itself, by eliminating wheat, a staple of a gluten containing diet, you lose a large source of fiber.  In addition, these diets can lead to nutritional deficiencies given that many gluten-free products are not fortified with vitamins and minerals.

Finally, even though it is a diet, it does not mean that it is always healthy. Many gluten free foods can be highly caloric and contain large amounts of sugars and starches, which can even lead to weight gain in some people.

Generally, I reserve recommendation of this diet for those that have medical conditions that necessitate its avoidance.

If you are going to use a gluten-free diet, make sure you are not eating large amounts of refined sugars and starches, watch calories carefully, continue to eat plenty of whole grains. You may also benefit from taking a daily multivitamin.

If you are researching a gluten-free diet in an effort to lose weight, I encourage you instead to make changes in your overall health.  Weight loss is a simple equation in that the energy, or calories taken in, has to be less than the energy used. While this can be accomplished in a multiple ways the best thing is to use a combination of a healthy, well-balanced diet and physical activity.