Short answer

Reasons to go gluten free:

  1. You've been diagnosed with celiac disease, a wheat or gluten allergy, or, gluten sensitivity or intolerance.
  2. You've experienced gluten sensitivity or intolerance signs and symptoms and through experimentation, careful consideration and trial and error under the guidance of your physician(s) and/or dietitian(s), you've found you feel better when you do not consume foods with gluten in it.
  3. Someone(s) in your household are gluten-free for the aforementioned reasons and you eat similarly for sake of ease and solidarity.

Reasons to not go gluten free:

  1. As a method to lose weight.

Long(er) answer

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Gluten is a combination of specific proteins found in wheat. It’s what gives dough it’s elasticity, giving breads their soft and chewy texture. It's often used a thickener in many foods - even ones you wouldn't have expected. Think of it as the "glue" that holds things like pasta and pastries together.

About 1% of people have celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune disease that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is consumed. Most people aren’t aware they have it even though the disease is roughly five times more common than half a century ago. In a person with celiac disease, ingesting gluten causes the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine, which prevents them from properly absorbing key nutrients. This is diagnosed through careful consideration of signs and symptoms, but, most importantly, through blood tests and/or intestine biopsies.

A tiny percentage of people (about .4%) suffer from wheat allergies, and some 18 million people in the US have non-celiac sensitivity to gluten.

With allergies, the immune system is involved. With sensitivities, the majority of the body’s response is triggered in the digestive system and does not attack the immune system.

Food sensitivities aren’t life threatening, and while ingesting some gluten may leave you feeling bloated or tired (or any other combination of symptoms), it’s not something you’re being rushed to the emergency room for. Reactions to intolerances - when your body has issues and/or the inability to process and digest the particular food are similar although continuous consumption of gluten could result in long term intestinal damage for people who are truly intolerant.

Signs and Symptoms

Because celiac disease and gluten intolerance wreak havoc on the immune system, signs and symptoms can be wide-ranging.

  • Stomach pain, cramping
  • Bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea
  • Heartburn
  • Skin rashes, hives, swelling
  • Headaches
  • Low energy, fogginess
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Thyroid conditions
  • Cavities, canker sores and tooth decay
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Delayed puberty and growth
  • Nausea/vomiting

OMG, sometimes I get headaches and I have a hard time losing weight.... is it the gluten??!

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There's a chance it might be, sure.

But before you swear off gluten for good, could it be....

  • You haven't been paying a lot of attention to your nutrition by eating mostly whole, minimally processed foods like vegetables, fruits, proteins, whole grains and fats
  • You haven't been eating at a caloric deficit (if weight loss is your goal) and are eating more than is necessary based on your levels of physical activity, and hormonal profile
  • You haven't been eating enough food based on your activity level and hormonal profile
  • You barely stay hydrated and forget to drink water
  • You have developed poor sleeping habits/schedules
  • You don't take the time for rest and recovery
  • You haven't been doing much physical activity or movement like strength training, walking, biking, etc.....

There's also a chance you could be experiencing signs and symptoms due to other ingredients or foods. For example, many people experiencing irritable bowel syndrome (abdominal pain, constipation, bloating, diarrhea, etc.) and fatigue and lethargy aren't necessarily being effected by the gluten in certain products, but in certain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols. These are called FODMAPS (Fermentable Oligosaccharides Disaccharides Monosaccharides and Polyols). Foods high in FODMAPS are things like onions, garlic, cauliflower, apples, avocados, cashews, many dairy products, products containing artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols and yes, many products containing wheat. It's a LONG list.

Because there can be so many things that cause and/or influence those signs and symptoms, it's not advised to self-diagnose a gluten allergy or intolerance. This is something that should be done under the direction of physicians (allergists, gastroenterologists, etc.) and dietitians, not by some quick Google searches or an article in a magazine.

Self-diagnosis and self-designed elimination diets could work against you; they could produce false negatives in future testing, making it difficult to determine the cause of your symptoms. Gluten free diets can also be low in key vitamins and minerals and can put you at risk for other nutritional deficiencies if you are not eating and/or supplementing for them appropriately.

 

But gluten isn't bad for me?

Nope. If eating foods that contain gluten don't bother you, there is no research to support the need for going gluten free if you do not have celiac disease, wheat or gluten allergies or, gluten sensitivity or intolerances.

Cutting gluten out of your diet just for weight loss or, to be "healthier" won't provide you with any additional or increased health benefits unless going gluten free inspires you to reach for more fruits, veggies, protein and the like.

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Gluten is not always the devil here, or, the reason for your weight gain or health problems. It's simply a protein that some people can easily absorb and digest and others cannot.

 

But would I lose weight?

Okay, maybe.

11% of US households adhere to a gluten-free diet, but only a quarter of them do it because of celiac disease or gluten sensitivities.

So what's the deal?

Going gluten free often means getting rid of the many high(er) calorie foods that once made up your diet, especially highly processed products. If you are indeed eating fewer calories than you were before, weight loss may occur. If though, you are substituting all of your former gluten filled products with gluten free ones, or, are eating even more than you did before, believing gluten free products are inherently healthier or won’t cause weight gain when eaten in surplus, you would not lose weight.

Many gluten free products are higher in calories compared to their counterparts. The term "gluten-free" doesn't absolve a food from being calorically dense or mean that it is nutritionally nutrient-dense.

Gluten free doesn't automatically equal weight loss.

For those truly suffering from celiac disease, they might find themselves actually gaining weight once removing gluten from their diets as they are now able to absorb the nutrients from the foods they are eating.

Tell the truth

You should always be able to eat the foods you choose to eat without the need for justifying, defending or explaining your choices to anyone. You have unique taste preferences, likes, dislikes and goals. You should be picky.

There's a big difference between needing to going gluten free due to having celiac disease or diagnosed gluten sensitivity or intolerance and deciding to go gluten free for weight loss and perceived "improved health".

If you do not have celiac disease or, have not been properly diagnosed with gluten sensitivity or intolerance and your reason for not eating gluten is strictly weight loss related (even though now you know it's not necessary and could do you more harm than good) stop saying you're allergic to gluten. 

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Preferring not to eat gluten is not the same as needing to not eat gluten.

True allergy sufferers have worked hard to push for regulations and rules regarding food safety and handling in restaurants, schools and other food establishments and for people to take their allergies and medical issuses seriously.

In recent years, ditching gluten has become a fashionable, trendy diet, eliciting many an eyeroll from people who believe it's just another "silly" fad. Remember, this is very different than the seriousness that celiac disease and allergies (sensitivities and intolerances, too) require.

Preparing gluten free meals is a time consuming (often more expensive) and elaborate process. And, when done incorrectly or in haste, can result in true medical emergencies. When out and about ordering food at restaurants don't lie about having real, life threatening allergies or reactions to gluten (or any other food) if in fact you don't. These are serious conditions that should be treated as such. Stop perpetuating the notion that being gluten free is just a weight loss fad.