Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration's rules about what can be called gluten-free were finally set in place, a standard that had been a year in the making. Now, a product labeled gluten-free must meet certain requirements, including ensuring any food that has been processed to remove gluten must not contain gluten levels over 20 parts per million. This is great news for those who are allergic to gluten, such as people with celiac disease, but should you reach for gluten-free goods even if you aren't?
Miley Cyrus, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Oprah Winfrey are just a few celebs who have touted the gluten-free lifestyle at some point. Because of its high-profile endorsements, many people believe that adopting a gluten-free diet can help them have more energy, lose weight, have clearer skin, and feel healthier overall, even when they have no idea what gluten is (which Jimmy Kimmel hilariously pointed out on his show). Gluten-free products have cropped up on supermarket shelves around the country, exponentially more than the prevalence of gluten sensitivities (which spells good news for those who used to search high and low for suitable foods!).
An opinion piece in the Annals of Internal Medicine, however, says that going on a gluten-free diet for nonmedical reasons is a waste of money, since many people invest in expensive gluten-free foods that end up containing more carbs, sugar, and calories than their gluten-filled counterparts. While only about eight to 12 percent of people buy gluten-free goods because they have a gluten intolerance — including the one in 133 who have celiac disease — one poll found that 35 percent of people asked thought that "gluten-free" meant healthier. And while it's true that giving up things like pizza, pasta, and bread does mean low-carb, buying products labeled gluten-free doesn't necessarily mean you'll be eating low-carb — the carbs and calories in all those gluten-free cookies and bagels are, unfortunately, still there.
Even so, one study did show a benefit to going gluten-free, even if you don't know you're intolerant. The study looked at over 3,000 individuals and found that those with a gluten sensitivity who didn't know about it had fewer gastrointestinal issues and general improvement of heath when they were placed on a gluten-free diet. But, as the authors warn, more research is necessary to find out if it could be something else in wheat flour, not gluten, that's causing the sensitivity in some people.
There's also a possible beneficial effect from just believing a gluten-free diet is helpful. Tennis pro Novak Djokovic famously went from loser to winner with what his trainer says is the result of a shift to a strict gluten-free diet, which has helped him lose weight and overcome mental blocks to vastly improve his game. And although the tennis star is allergic to gluten, his trainer says that other people may benefit from gluten-free diets, even if it's only due to a placebo effect, and some experts agree. "If you believe in a cause of your disorder, it becomes the cause," says David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University. "We see this in many different studies. If you believe it, you change your behavior in the direction of being cured."
It's true that it's important to realize that gluten-free doesn't equal low-carb or healthier. You won't necessarily lose weight from eating a gluten-free diet, and you'll just be restricting your diet for no reason. However, if you think you may have a gluten sensitivity, eliminating it from your diet may help you feel better (just make sure you stick to whole, unprocessed foods and fresh fruits and vegetables) — whether or not it's all in your head.