Going gluten-free has gotten a lot easier lately. Gluten-free products—everything from bagels to beer—are showing up on store shelves like never before. And consumers can’t get enough. Last year alone, Americans spent $2.6 billion on gluten-free foods, and they’re hungry for more. For those who have a true intolerance or sensitivity to gluten—a protein found in wheat, rye and barley—these foods are a blessing. But many of these products are being snapped up by those who tolerate gluten just fine, in the belief that going gluten-free is a great strategy for weight loss. And to them I say, “Buyer beware”—because gluten-free doesn’t necessarily mean low calorie.
This glut of gluten-free products reminds me of the avalanche of low-carb foods that was dumped into stores at the tail end of the low-carbohydrate diet craze a few years ago. When the low-carbohydrate diet was first popular, meals consisted mainly of protein and fat, a very limited number of fruits and vegetables and not much of anything else. Staying within the day’s carbohydrate allotment was pretty easy, since food choices were so limited and calorie counting wasn’t necessary. Even with the promise that they could eat all the meat they wanted, people lost weight. But this was due, in part, because boredom set in. With so little variety, people simply ended up eating less. There’s only so much meat a person can eat at a sitting, day after day.
Not wanting to miss an opportunity, the food manufacturers went full tilt and unleashed a torrent of low-carb foods into the market—like candy bars, breads, cookies and cakes—all deemed suitable for carb watchers.
Suddenly, this limited diet became more varied than ever, and people ate up more calories than ever before. And, not surprisingly, they saw their weight start to climb. Why? They’d gotten so used to counting only carbs and not calories that they failed to notice that many of these foods, although hyped as low carbohydrate, were loaded with calories.
It looks like the same thing may be happening again with gluten-free. Since the primary source of gluten in the diet is wheat and anything made from it, someone shunning gluten would need to give up stuff like bread, rice, pasta, cakes, pies, cookies, pretzels and crackers. So, they would get more of their carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables instead—not a bad strategy for weight loss.
But now we’ve got gluten-free cereal, brownies, granola, cakes and cookies, thanks to the substitution (in most cases) of refined rice flour, corn starch and potato starch for traditional wheat flour. But starch is starch. Simplyy dodging gluten isn’t going to cut it, unless you’re paying attention to calories, too.
Compare the labels of gluten-free brownie mix or cake mix to the regular versions and you’ll see what I mean—same portion, same calories. Just last week, I spied some gluten-free muffins at the bakery. But with 20 grams of fat and 450 calories each, they hardly qualify as a diet food.
No matter what your reasons are for avoiding gluten, you still need to watch calories. If, like the carb-counters of yesteryear, you’re paying attention only to your gluten intake, a diet loaded with high-calorie, gluten-free products could bring your weight loss to a screeching halt.
Susan is the Sr. Director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife, where she is responsible for the development of nutrition education and training materials, and is one of the primary authors of the Herbalife-sponsored blog, www.discovergoodnutrition.com. She is a Registered Dietitian and holds two Board Certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and a Certified Specialist in Obesity and Weight Management. Susan is also a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Susan graduated with distinction in biology from the University of Colorado, and received her master’s degree in Food Science and Nutrition from Colorado State University. She then completed her dietetic internship at the University of Kansas. Susan has taught extensively and developed educational programs targeted to individuals, groups and industry in her areas of expertise, including health promotion, weight management and sports nutrition.
Prior to her role at Herbalife, she was the assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, and has held appointments as adjunct professor in nutrition at Pepperdine University and as lecturer in nutrition in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Susan was a consultant to the (then) Los Angeles Raiders for six seasons, and was a contributing columnist for the Los Angeles Times Health Section for two years. She is a co-author of 23 research papers, 14 book chapters, and was a co-author of two books for the public: “What Color is Your Diet?” and “The L.A. Shape Diet” by Dr. David Heber, published by Harper Collins in 2001 and 2004, respectively.