What to know before going gluten-free to lose weight, feel better

Gluten-free diet: what you need to know

DETROIT - Have you considered going gluten-free?  It seems a growing number of people are.  A survey by Today's Dietitian magazine of more than 500 dietitians predicts "gluten-free" will be the top diet trend of 2014.

Gluten-free diets were once followed only by those suffering from a digestive and autoimmune disorder called celiac disease, but in recent years, more people are eliminating gluten for other reasons.

Julie Hein of Sterling Heights, Michigan, started eating gluten-free in September, in hopes of losing weight.

"Within the first week, probably lost a pound or two, but I just felt different. I felt like there was a cloud lifted from my head," Hein said. "By November 1st, I lost about five pounds, and I wasn't cutting back on my eating. I was still eating three meals a day, snacking at night."

She's since lost a total of ten pounds, but that's not the only change she has noticed.

"I feel like I have more energy," said Hein.  "I'm doing more, and I'm feeling healthier."

So what is gluten? Simply put, gluten is a set of proteins that give breads and other foods an elastic, chewy, gummy consistency. It's used to enhance the texture and even make bread rise more. 

Gluten is mostly found in wheat and related grains such as oats and barley, but is also used as thickener in other products such as ketchup or salad dressing. 

Gluten should not be confused with carbohydrates.  Many people are surprised to learn potatoes and rice are naturally gluten-free.

Those who suffer from celiac disease must avoid eating gluten to prevent damage to the lining of the small intestine. But there's some evidence that others may benefit from going gluten-free too.

"There may be up to 18 to 20 million Americans, or much more, with gluten sensitivity," said Dr. Amit Bahn, a gastroenterologist at Henry Ford Hospital.

Unlike celiac disease, there is no medical test for gluten sensitivity.

Affected individuals may experience a wide range of symptoms including diarrhea, bloating, a general feeling of unwellness, numbness, or tingling, and what some describe as a "brain fog."

Bahn cautions if you choose to go gluten-free because you have intestinal symptoms, it is very important to talk to your doctor to rule out celiac disease first.

What if you don't have a gluten sensitivity, but just want to lose weight? Bahn says going gluten-free is not necessarily a good diet strategy.

"Some gluten-free diets may contain food with gluten substitutes, and those foods may be higher in fat and sugar content to make them more palatable," Bahn said.

Still, many people on gluten-free diets do report losing weight.

"Generally they have adopted a healthier lifestyle," Bahn said. "If you look at foods that are gluten-free: fruits, vegetables, lean protein, fish, nuts, and even some grains, they tend to be low in carbohydrates, low calories."

That's been true for Hein. She doesn't believe she has a gluten-sensitivity, but before going gluten-free?

"Huge bread eater," Hein said. "Before, I loved pasta, loved anything sweet. When I decided to go gluten-free, it just knocked off all of those things that were adding a lot of calories, and I had to fill them with other things."

She uses spaghetti squash in place of spaghetti now. Her husband eats it too. She's found a great recipe for gluten-free peanut butter cookies.

"I also eat a lot more vegetables and salads. I make vegetables all the time, I eat rice, I eat potatoes," Hein said.

Hein says eating gluten-free is still a struggle sometimes, but it has gotten easier.

"Once I hit like the one month of doing it, I formed the habits," Hein said. "For me, it's just helped me feel more healthy. I felt like things were working better in my body."

Eating gluten-free can be challenging.  To learn more about how to shop for healthy gluten-free foods, see consumer expert Ruth Spencer's report on gluten-free shopping.

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