We have all heard nutritionists denounce the gluten-free diet as nothing more than a passing phase in our endless quest for the diet to end all diets. But secretly, we wonder whether it might just be the one. Ditching gluten doesn’t sound so bad — just swap wheat bread for a gluten-free variety, wheat pasta for rice noodles, and cookies, and so long as they’re gluten-free, they’re okay, right? Well, not exactly.
Circles of Confusion
Think back about 20 years ago to a time of scrunchies, stirrup pants, perms, and a diet craze that rendered us even more frumpy than those fashion trends: the low-fat diet. The logic seemed sound; eating fat makes you fat. So we embraced a life sans butter, cream, and steak.
“What nobody realized — or at least I certainly could never have guessed — was that the food industry would substitute vegetable fats for animal fats in such a profound way, and would also substitute sugars for fats, and keep the calorie content of the products exactly the same,” said Marion Nestle, author of the book, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, in an interview with PBS.
We all know how the story ended. It’s old news by now. Consuming less dietary fat doesn’t make us less fat.
The Trend Is Nothing New
Now the gluten-free diet promises a similar panacea to our weight loss woes: just cut out gluten and watch the pounds fall off. The message has taken hold in the public consciousness, with many people believing that gluten-free products are healthier.
However, what no one is talking about is calories. “Nobody wants to,” Nestle says. “And calories are what counts.”
The same holds true for gluten-free products. For example, compare a gluten-free slice of bread to a slice of white bread. Ounce for ounce, they contain roughly the same number of calories, fiber, and protein. Chocolate chip cookies fare similarly. The same number of calories equals the same amount of energy that, if you don’t burn off, will take up residence on your hips.
Fast forward another 20 years, and we will look back on the gluten-free diet as yet another captivating fad that failed to free us from our fat pants.
Want to Give It a Shot?
So why does the diet have such a following? Consider again calories. If you take your average tuna sandwich with romaine on whole-grain bread and simply remove the bread, instead of replacing it, you’ve just saved a nice 250 or more calories. Do that at every meal and you get the picture. Unfortunately, for a consuming public, not selling something doesn’t make food manufacturers any profit. Enter gluten-free everything.
Ultimately, if you want to go gluten-free to lose weight, do it in the context of calories. Skip the products that are labeled gluten-free and choose those that naturally don’t have any gluten, such as salmon, wild rice, sautéed chard, and a nice Sauvignon Blanc. It’s better than leaden bread any day!