By Tracy Severson, R.D., L.D.
With the growing popularity of all things gluten-free, are you wondering if this diet might be right for you? I’m frequently asked by patients if a gluten-free diet will help with weight loss, digestive issues, or other ailments. Unless you have a gluten allergy or intolerance, the simple answer is no.
Gluten is a protein found in certain grains — wheat, barley, and rye. People following a gluten-free diet avoid all products that contain these grains; other foods such as fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, eggs, legumes, nuts, and gluten-free grains such as rice and quinoa are allowed. People who require a gluten-free diet are those with celiac disease and those with a gluten-sensitivity or intolerance. When people with celiac disease eat even a small amount of a food with gluten in it, they can develop abdominal pain, diarrhea, damage to their intestinal lining, weight loss, and eventually vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The only treatment for celiac disease is following a strict gluten-free diet. People who are gluten intolerant but do not have celiac disease also find relief from various digestive issues by following a gluten-free diet.
For the majority of people, however, gluten is not unhealthy or harmful. If you aren’t allergic or sensitive to gluten, removing it from your diet will not help you lose weight or make you feel better. Choosing a variety of whole grain foods such as whole wheat bread and pasta, barley, oats, brown rice, and quinoa is still recommended as part of a healthy diet. Many people may initially feel better after starting a gluten-free diet, but this is more often due to the person eliminating processed foods and paying closer attention to their overall diet while making this change. They may even lose weight initially since they have eliminated many foods from their diets, but this is typically short-lived.
Gluten-free diets are currently very trendy, with a number of products being promoted as “healthy” simply because they don’t contain gluten. However, common-sense advice still holds true — choose minimally-processed whole foods whenever possible, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. Gluten-free cupcakes are still just cupcakes, not health food. Stick to a well-balanced diet, watch your portions, and get regular physical activity. Not the trendiest advice, but it is the most trusted.
If you are having digestive issues or are concerned you may have celiac disease, see your primary care provider to be tested. Keep in mind that you need to be eating gluten regularly for four weeks prior to being tested for celiac in order to get an accurate result. You can also ask to see a registered dietitian to evaluate your diet and symptoms. For more gluten-free resources, contact the OHSU Nutrition Clinic or visit celiac.org.
Tracy Severson is an outpatient clinical dietitian at OHSU. She earned Bachelor’s degrees in Nutritional Sciences and Sociology from the University of Arizona and completed her training to become a Registered Dietitian (R.D.) at the University Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona. Since becoming an R.D., she has also completed a Certificate of Training in Adult Weight Management.
Tracy moved to Portland from Tucson in 2010, and has worked at OHSU since 2011. She works with the OHSU Surgical Weight Reduction clinic and Cardiac Rehab program, and also provides medical nutrition therapy for General Adult Outpatient Clinics at OHSU.