Should You Go Gluten-Free?

Miley Cyrus said her new physique is a result of Pilates and a gluten-free diet, not an eating disorder. (Image credit: Osvaldo/FameFlynet Pictures)

Miley Cyrus is the latest celeb to go gluten-free, a move some experts are calling the low-carb diet of the decade.

A slim Cyrus defended her wheat-free ways and obvious weight loss Monday, tweeting, "For everyone calling me anorexic I have a gluten and lactose allergy. It's not about weight it's about health. Gluten is crapppp anyway!"

Gluten is the protein "glue" that gives wheat, barley, and rye flours their stretchy texture when kneaded into dough. But one in 100 Americans suffers from a severe gluten allergy called celiac disease, and many more have gluten sensitivities that leave them feeling tired, achy and bloated.

"Many people with celiac disease would get the label of irritable bowel syndrome," said Dr. Peter Green, director of Columbia University's Celiac Disease Center in New York. "But in addition to those symptoms, there's an increased mortality, which is related to [intestinal] cancer.

But that increased cancer risk can disappear after five to 10 years on a gluten-free diet, Green said.

Still, not everyone embracing the gluten-free life is allergic. Green estimates close to 90 percent of dieters ditch gluten "as a food fad, or as a weight reduction thing."

"On a weight-reduction diet, one typically avoids carbohydrates. And our main source of carbohydrates is wheat flour," he said, adding that breads and pasta are usually the first foods to go. "A weight-reduction diet is often a gluten-free diet."

Gluten-free dieters can eat fruits, vegetables, meat and a host of gluten-free products made with flour substitutes. But those products tend to be pricy, Green said, adding "the trendiest thing in the food industry right now is gluten-free."

Green said most people who stop eating gluten products after being diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity actually gain weight, since avoiding gluten helps their digestive systems to work better.

And, he said, "They tend to buy a lot of the prepared gluten-free foods that are substitutes for gluten-containing foods. And in order to improve the taste of those foods, the manufacturer may add more fat or sugar."

With public awareness of celiac disease on the rise, many people try eliminating gluten and report feeling better. Cyrus encouraged her 5.4 million followers to give gluten-free a try, tweeting, "Everyone should try no gluten for a week! The change in your skin, phyisical [sic] and mental health is amazing! U won't go back!"

But Green said people who suspect they have celiac disease should ask their doctor for a test.

"Food trends come and go. But if you really have celiac disease, it's a lifelong condition with significant health risks," he said.

Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, said people who cut gluten to stay slim are relaying on a strategy common to almost all quick-fix diets: restricting food choices.

"When people have fewer choices, they tend to eat less and lose weight accordingly," he said. "But you could accomplish the same thing by limiting to healthful, wholesome foods, including whole grains that do contain gluten. The result would be an easier, more sustainable, and potentially more nutritious diet overall."

As for gluten being "crappp," Katz said there's nothing unhealthy about it unless someone has a true sensitivity.

"It's a protein that has been in the human diet since the dawn of agriculture," he said. "I don't endorse cutting gluten as a weight loss strategy. I think it is advisable only for those with genuine sensitivities."