Stroll down the aisles of any supermarket or deli these days and you'll come across entire sections devoted to gluten-free foods. It's a food category that's selling well, like gluten-free hotcakes. Nearly 30 percent of Americans say they're trying to cut back on gluten, the consumer survey firm NPD Group recently reported.
There are legitimate reasons people avoid the gluten protein found in wheat, barley and rye.
According to National Institutes of Health statistics, about 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, a condition for which eating gluten brings on major gastrointestinal distress and myriad other symptoms. Another small but undetermined percentage of people experience milder gastro symptoms, brought on by some level of gluten sensitivity or intolerance. Limiting bread, pasta and other gluten-containing foods helps people in both of these groups feel better.
But why are so many other consumers snapping gluten-free goods to the tune of $4.4 billion a year, according to a report by Packaged Stats?
Weight loss, of course. With Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckham and other whip- thin stars leading the charge, gluten-free has become the latest get-thin-quick diet fad.
But if consumers believe banishing gluten from their diets will work some kind of weight-loss magic, Margaret Weiss, the clinical manager of the Kogan Celiac Center at Barnabas Health in Livingston, N.J., said they may be sorely disappointed.
"You have to replace the gluten with something so the majority of processed gluten-free products are held together with oil, butter and eggs," Weiss pointed out. "They tend to be higher in fat, calories and sugar, and lower in fiber, vitamins and minerals."
For example, a slice of regular whole wheat bread contains about 69 calories, 2 grams of fiber and less than 1 gram of fat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional database. Depending on the brand, a slice of gluten-free whole wheat bread may have 20 to 30 more calories, double the fat and half the fiber.
Alissa Lupu, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at the Center of Advanced Digestive Care at New York Presbyterian at Weill Cornell Medical Center said that a gluten-free diet was never intended to help people slim down. In fact, many people with celiac disease who go on a gluten-free eating plan find that without the grain protein in their system, they can properly absorb the calories and nutrients from their food for the first time and they wind up gaining weight.
For dieters who focus their gluten-free efforts on eating more lean protein, fruits and vegetables, the diet can produce some initial weight loss, registered dietitian and nutritionist Jennifer Neily said.
"You clean up your eating habits by taking away white flour, sugar, junk food and other things you should be limiting anyway," she said.
But dieters shouldn't be fooled. Weight loss comes from reducing calories, not the absence of gluten. When you cut out whole food groups, Neily said, you have fewer choices and tend not to eat as much.
Problems arise when taste buds get bored and dieters go in search of junk food.
Elizabeth Putsche, a celiac sufferer from Baltimore, said she is baffled as to why someone who does not have celiac or gluten sensitivity would think that eating a lot of processed gluten-free products would help them drop a few pounds.