June 25, 2013 -- 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.
"Just as you can gain weight on a vegan diet if you eat French fries and Oreos, you can gain weight going gluten-free," she said.
Neily said people often overdo gluten-free snacks and baked goods because they have a "health halo" surrounding them.
"Gluten-free doesn't mean calorie or fat free. If these foods are a big part of your diet, you probably won't be losing weight," she said.
Her point is well taken: Gluten-free Glutino pretzel sticks, for example, contain 120 calories per ounce, compared with 100 calories per ounce for standard pretzel sticks. Gluten-free chocolate chip cookies are approximately 110 calories per cookie, while a regular chocolate cookie is about 90 calories. Gluten-free chocolate cake delivers approximately 280 calories and 5 grams per slice, slightly more than a piece of chocolate cake with the gluten intact.
Although the gluten-free weight-loss fad shows no signs of slowing down, some dieters are catching on – and giving up.
Dyana Flanigan a 48-year-old public relations manager from Chicago, said she tried a gluten-free diet for six months and wound up gaining 5 pounds.
"I really don't know why I gained weight. Maybe because I was eating more of other things as a reward for denying myself what I really wanted," she speculated.
And, she said, she found gluten-free an expensive way to eat. She was shocked to pay $8 for a bag of gluten-free pretzels when a similar bag of regular pretzels cost around $2.
Although she didn't lose any weight, her pocketbook definitely did, she said.
Now, we want to know what you think. Have you tried going on a gluten-free diet to lose weight? Did it help? Do you have celiac disease or know someone who is gluten sensitive who resents when others go gluten-free "just because"?
Leave your opinion in the comments section below and join our celiac and gluten sensitivity tweet chat today at 1 p.m. ET. The chat will be moderated by ABC News chief health and medical correspondent Dr. Richard Besser. Experts from topic celiac and gluten-free organizations, such as the Mayo Clinic, the American Gastroenterological Association and the Celiac Sprue Association will be tweeting their thoughts. Joining the tweet chat is easy. Click here for more details.