Gluten-Free Diets Are Not Good Weight-Loss Plans

Let's just drop the whole "diet" thing, okay?

It’s unfortunate that the word “diet” was ever lodged behind of the phrase, “gluten-free.” I’d wager that eight times out of 10, a person reads the words “gluten-free diet” and thinks about weight loss. It’s only natural: The idea of diets has become so inextricably linked to that of losing weight (see: South Beach, Atkins, et al), that when most of us hear the word, we can’t help but imagine what we’d look like with smaller waistlines or without love handles or with a little less junk in our trunks.

The problem is, a diet is just a way of eating. Any way of eating. Period. For all you know, I live on a junk food diet (I don’t, really), replete with Pringles and Cheetos and oversize slices of chocolate cake. Obviously, there’s nothing inherently healthy or weight-loss-provoking in that. Same goes for diets that happen to be free of gluten.

Gluten-free diets as diets, in the way you’re thinking, popped up again in the news this week. Sigh. This time it’s in the context of Miley Cyrus, whose newly slimmed body quickly became fodder for internet speculation about the possibility of an eating disorder. Trying to nip the rumors in the bud, Cyrus tweeted yesterday: “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!”

Of course, she didn’t explicitly say she cut out gluten to lose weight, but that’s the conclusion most everyone’s drawing, anyway. And it’s annoying.

Philly health coach and gluten-free guru Jennifer Fugo agrees: “For most people, gluten-free diets aren’t particularly healthy diets to begin with. Most people start with a standard American diet and they just make it gluten-free. So they switch from eating a regular brownie to one that’s gluten free. Guess what? It’s still a brownie.”

Fugo went gluten-free in 2007. As she writes on her website: “My declining health at the ripe old age of 27 just didn’t make sense. Unable to wake up in the morning (even after 9 hours of sleep), I felt exhausted all day and popped Tylenol trying to manage constant headaches. My digestive system was a mess (think constant gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation) and I’d gained almost 20 pounds despite hitting the gym four times a week.”

Fugo cut out gluten at the advice of a nutritionist; all her problems dried up and, yes, she even shed those extra 20 pounds. But here’s the thing: Fugo realized she had an actual, physiological issue with gluten. It was causing inflammation in her body, so that’s where the extra weight was coming from. It seemingly melted off after she kicked her gluten habit because her body was suddenly less inflamed.

When Fugo went gluten-free in 2007, it also happened to be before the gluten fad had really taken off, so there weren’t many in-the-box, processed options at the grocery store that were gluten-free. “Gluten-free bread back then was just gross,” she says. “I pretty much ended up cutting out carbs because they didn’t taste good anymore.” Lacking other choices, Fugo opted for what she calls “real food”—basically, untampered-with plant and animal foods.

But the thing is, gluten-free eaters today have more boxed and processed options than ever before. These products certainly rank high on the convenience scale, which is nice, but as Fugo points out, they’re oftentimes no “healthier” in the weight-loss sense than the non-GF cookies and crackers on the aisle.

“Lots of gluten free diets are very high in sugar and low in fiber because foods lose fiber when they’re refined. So to make up for the taste, manufacturers will add a lot of other things—salt, sugar—to make the food taste good,” explains Fugo. “This is when gluten-free diets become a major diabetes concern.”  And that’s how we end up the danger zone, folks.

So here’s what I propose: Forget the word “diet” when you hear or read about gluten-free eating. Forget about Miley Cyrus and Zooey Deschanel and Scarlett Johansson and any other celebrity who’s both thin and claims to be on a gluten-free diet. (I’m not saying they don’t have legitimate reasons for eating GF, by the way—just that you shouldn’t let yourself infer that their thinness is related to their gluten choices). If you think you might have a sensitivity to gluten, go to the doctor and find out if there’s a real medical issue. Or, test your theory by eliminating gluten from your diet for a few days and seeing if you feel better or the same.

But whatever you do, don’t start buying gluten-free cookies with visions of looking like Gisele Bündchen come summertime. You’re better off sweating out your gluten-rich cookies at the gym. And, you know, eating more vegetables.