Diets restricting the intake of grains such as wheat have been rising in popularity over the last couple of years. Two of the most popular include Paleo diets and Gluten Free diets. While Paleo restricts a range of foods such as dairy, legumes and cereal grains, Gluten Free diets tend to have a heavy focus on wheat since it provides the majority of our gluten intake, but also other grains such as barley and rye. So what is it about gluten and wheat that has everyone worried?
What is Gluten?
To get to the bottom of the issues related to gluten, we must first understand what it is. Gluten is a protein, just like whey, casein and meat proteins. In fact, it is the main type of protein, making up 80% of the protein content in grains such as wheat, rye and barley. Unfortunately for humans, we don’t possess the digestive enzymes to break it down completely leaving fragments left in our body. While this can trigger certain reactions and issues for people, the majority of us don’t seem to be affected.
Wheat Allergy, Gluten Intolerance, Coeliac Disease & Gluten Sensitivity
You may have hear one or more of the above terms, but they are all names of gluten related disorders1 that can occur. Let’s take a quick look at each of these:
- Wheat Allergy – This is an allergic reaction to any of the proteins found in wheat including gluten. Reactions can affect the skin, gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts and can result in anaphylaxis, asthma and rhinitis to name a few. These symptoms have an onset of minutes to hours after exposure to gluten or wheat and severe allergic reactions tend to be more rare.
- Coeliac Disease (CD) – Classified as an autoimmune disease (your body develops an immune response against substances and tissues normally found in the body), coealic disease or gluten intolerance can present in a wide variety of symptoms. These include acute symptoms such as diarrhoea or vomiting to more chronic symptoms such as weight loss, lethargy, anaemia, skin conditions, osteoporosis and even neurological disturbances. Most people experience a lag of months or years after eating gluten before experiencing these effects.
- Gluten Sensitivity (GS) – For some people, going on a gluten free diet seems to correct certain negative symptoms. However, they neither suffer allergic reactions or traditional autoimmune disease attributes. Those people are said to have gluten sensitivity and may suffer similar symptoms as that of people with CD along with added symptoms such as bone or joint pain, abdominal pain, eczema or rash, headaches, foggy mind, fatigue, diarrhoea, depression and anaemia just to name a few. Unlike wheat allergy and CD, there is no diagnostic test for GS and diagnosis is really based on exclusion of other known causes and the use of an gluten elimination diet.
What is gluten obesity you might ask? For many years now, gluten free and wheat free proponents have suggested that going gluten free may be able to help with a wide range of health conditions including those concerning energy levels, gastrointestinal discomfort and even obesity and diabetes. In fact, over a five year period from 2010 to 2014, sales of gluten free foods has grown to nearly US$1 billion2. But can going gluten free really result in weight loss and does gluten really cause weight and fat gain?
How Does Gluten Cause Weight Gain?
There isn’t a whole lot of evidence3 to confirm that gluten free diets help support weight or fat loss. In fact, for those who have coeliac disease, going gluten free might result in weight gain as they are able to absorb more nutrients from their food. In addition, gluten free foods often contain the same amount of calories or even more than gluten containing alternatives and can also be higher in fat and salt as well. But what about gluten itself? Can that make you fat? Two animal studies conducted in the last few years have aimed at looking at this proposed connection. The first study4 back in 2013 examined the role of wheat gluten on obesity and the results suggested that exposure to gluten was associated with weight gain, but was unable to explain why. The more recent study5 that was published in 2016 delved further into the issue and uncovered a couple of quite interesting results:
- The presence of gluten does not affect caloric intake.
- Mice who ate gluten seems to gain about 20% more weight than mice who did not eat gluten.
- Gluten consumption was associated with around 20-25% gains in visceral (around organs) and subcutaneous (just under the skin) fat tissue.
- Mice on gluten free diets had decreased energy expenditure.
- After 30 minutes, gluten was detected in the blood, liver and visceral fat tissue.
- The presence of gluten in tissues other than the intestines was associated with changes in gene expressions which are connected to energy and fat metabolism.
Does Gluten Make You Fat?
Whether or not gluten can cause weight gain is still inconclusive as there just aren’t enough studies, especially human studies which examine just how gluten affects the body. The above two studies provide a snapshot of what could happen, but is not gospel. After all, the studies above had the mice eating gluten at every meal with a total daily intake equivalent of 20 slices of whole wheat bread. In addition, it is not known whether gene expression changes were a direct result of gluten or from weight gain itself.
Should You Cut Out Gluten
This is a difficult question to answer. Generally speaking, if you haven’t tested for wheat allergies or celiac disease, most professionals would avoid suggestions of removing gluten from your diet, as it can be quite a significant change. A recent study6 in fact showed up to a 17% price differential between a gluten free food basket and a non-gluten free one. In addition, studies7 on whole grain consumption has shown lowered risk of type 2 diabetes, weight gain and cardiovascular disease as well as for a range of health indices. Although you can technically have whole grains without consuming substantial amounts of gluten. It should also be noted that ancient wheats are very different to modern day “bread wheats” due to selective breeding and often contain less gluten.
If you are experiencing negative symptoms that impact on your health that cannot be attributed to any known medical conditions, it is ideal that you speak with a dietitian about the possibility that it is food related. You can then decide with the right information how to conduct an elimination diet to see if gluten or another component might be the culprit.
Gluten Free Supplements
If you are on a gluten free diet or considering a gluten free diet, there are an increasing number of gluten free supplements that you can choose from. Let’s take a look some major categories and what’s around:
- Gluten Free Protein Powders – In terms of protein powders, many are now labelled gluten free, especially plant based sources of proteins such as Vital Pea Protein and International Protein Naturals Soy Protein. For dairy based proteins, Dymatize and MusclePharm have some available such as Dymatize Elite Whey and Combat 100% Isolate.
- Gluten Free Pre Workouts – Very few pre workouts are certified gluten free, so your best bet is to find single ingredient supplements which are gluten free.
- Gluten Free Fat Burners – There aren’t a whole lot of certified fat burners either, but most common fat burning ingredients don’t contain gluten.
- Gluten Free Creatine – Most 100% creatine supplements without flavours would most likely be gluten free even if they aren’t advertised, which most don’t.
- Gluten Free Test Boosters – Unfortuntately, while many of the ingredients in test boosters don’t contain gluten, flavouring agents may be derived from or contain wheat.
- Gluten Free Intra Workouts – While there aren’t many around, the new Scivation Xtend’s intra workout supplements are said to be gluten free.
2. Gluten-Free Foods in the U.S., 5th Edition : Market Research Report. 2016. Gluten-Free Foods in the U.S., 5th Edition : Market Research Report. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.packagedfacts.com/Gluten-Free-Foods-8108350/. [Accessed 20 April 2016].
3. Marcason W. ‘Is there evidence to support the claim that a gluten-free diet should be used for weight loss?’ J Am Diet Assoc. 2011 Nov;111(11):1786. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2011.09.030.
4. Soares FL, de Oliveira Matoso R, Teixeira LG, Menezes Z, Pereira SS, Alves AC, Batista NV, de Faria AM, Cara DC, Ferreira AV, Alvarez-Leite JI. ‘Gluten-free diet reduces adiposity, inflammation and insulin resistance associated with the induction of PPAR-alpha and PPAR-gamma expression.’ J Nutr Biochem. 2013 Jun;24(6):1105-11.
5. Freire RH, Fernandes LR, Silva RB, Coelho BS, de Araújo LP, Ribeiro LS, Andrade JM, Lima PM, Araújo RS, Santos SH, Coimbra CC, Cardoso VN, Alvarez-Leite JI. ‘Wheat gluten intake increases weight gain and adiposity associated with reduced thermogenesis and energy expenditure in an animal model of obesity.’ Int J Obes (Lond). 2016 Mar;40(3):479-86.
6. Lambert, K. & Ficken, C. ‘Cost and affordability of a nutritionally balanced gluten-free diet: is following a gluten-free diet affordable?’ Nutrition & dietetics. 2016 April: 73 (1), 36-42.
7. Ye EQ, Chacko SA, Chou EL, Kugizaki M, Liu S. ‘Greater whole-grain intake is associated with lower risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and weight gain.’ J Nutr. 2012 Jul;142(7):1304-13.