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You’ve probably heard some of the buzz surrounding the gluten-free weight loss diet – it seems as if every week, another celebrity comes forward with a story of how she detoxed and dropped a dozen pounds by going gluten-free.
But does the gluten-free diet really work for weight loss? The answer is yes … but a qualified yes. Most people will lose weight gluten-free, but only if they follow some additional rules involving a healthy diet and weight loss.
Gluten is a form of plant protein that occurs in the grains wheat, barley and rye. Since almost all modern grain products – including bread, cereal and cookies – are made with wheat flour, most people consume gluten-containing products multiple times each day.
Medical research shows that up to 8 percent of the population experiences some symptoms from gluten consumption. People with celiac disease – the most severe form of gluten intolerance – frequently lose significant weight prior to their diagnosis, because gluten robs them of the ability to digest nutrients.
However, many other people – those who don’t have celiac but in whom gluten still causes some symptoms – gain weight due to gluten consumption. It’s not clear exactly why, but the reason may lie in gluten’s effects on your metabolism.
When you consume a food that contains carbohydrates – as do all gluten-containing foods – your body responds to the resulting increase in blood sugar with a surge of insulin, which it then uses to process that sugar. Over time, it’s possible to become insulin-resistant, which can lead to weight gain around your waist and a host of other unwelcome metabolic effects, including diabetes and heart disease.
Wheat and the other gluten-containing grains seem to raise your insulin levels to a higher level than other types of carbohydrates, according to Dr. William Davis, a preventive cardiologist in Milwaukee, Wis., and author of The New York Times bestseller “Wheat Belly.”
These wheat-related insulin surges make you hungrier than you would be otherwise. Population studies show that people who eat wheat tend to eat 200 to 300 more calories per day than people who don’t eat wheat. If you consume an extra 300 calories per day, you’ll pack on pounds pretty quickly.
It’s not unusual for someone to go gluten-free and quickly lose five to 10 pounds, even without making other dietary changes. According to Dr. Davis, who prescribes a gluten-free diet to all of his patients, many people who carry extra weight around their bellies – the proverbial flabby belly – also are gluten-sensitive.
You’ll know quickly – within a week – if the gluten-free diet will work that well for you as a form of weight loss. If you also feel better and more energetic gluten-free, you may want to consider dropping gluten from your diet on a permanent basis, rather than just temporarily as a form of weight loss; those feelings of extra energy indicate you may have gluten intolerance.
This quick weight loss – 10 pounds or so – is what many celebrities report on their gluten-free detox diets. But if you have more weight to lose than 10 pounds, you’ll have some additional work to do in the form of both diet and exercise.
To keep your weight loss rolling along, you’ll need to avoid the temptation to replace all the breads and cereals in your former diet with gluten-free substitutes. Unfortunately, many grain-based gluten-free products contain very high levels of simple sugars and processed flours, both of which can contribute to weight gain without giving you any nutritional value. You can enjoy a gluten-free cookie as an occasional treat, but don’t over-indulge.
You’ll also need to avoid filling in the gaps in your diet with other processed foods, such as potato and corn chips. Yes, they’re gluten-free, but like most gluten-free substitute grain products, they’re also filled with empty calories.
If you have more energy gluten-free, exercise will seem like more of a pleasure than before. Take advantage of that to start a new activity or rejoin an old one. You’ll need to stay active to keep yourself moving toward your target weight.
Above all, don’t be too hard on yourself if you slip up and consume some gluten, either by accident or on purpose. You may gain some weight – some gluten-sensitive people report gaining five pounds overnight from even slight gluten exposure – but you’ll drop those pounds again fairly quickly once you resume the gluten-free diet.
By Jeanne M. Andrews