THE BLOG
09/21/2012 05:08 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2012

7 Ways Eating Gluten Makes You Fat, Sick and Tired

A recent study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics concluded that nixing gluten is not a good way to lose weight.

In this study, author Dr. Glenn Gaesser points out many supposed health benefits of gluten, including heart, gut, and immune system health. He also argues removing gluten frequently leads to weight gain because when people go gluten-free, they gravitate to high-sugar gluten-free junk foods.

Dr. Gaesser believes ill-informed celebrities have misled the public about gluten-free diets. "Gaga isn't the only misinformed celebrity [about gluten-free diets]," writes Kelsey Blackwell, addressing this study. "Miley Cyrus, Peter Sarsgaard and Kim Kardashian have all suggested a gluten-free diet helped them lose weight, and the media buzz continues to add to the consumer confusion about what and who this diet is really for."

Misunderstanding the Gluten-Free Diet

I completely agree with Dr. Gaesser and all the other pro-gluten defenders: Junk food is junk food, period, whether it's certified gluten-free or not. Snacking on gluten-free cookies and dining on gluten-free pizza will seriously stall fast fat loss.

But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. A gluten-free diet does not automatically entail processed foods. In fact, many of my clients stay lean and healthy on a whole foods, gluten-free diet. Some of them have been gluten-free for years and never felt or looked better.

Dr. Gaesser completely misses that point. "Even though [gluten-free diets have] been endorsed by celebrities for weight loss," he says, "let's face it -- they are not the experts on nutrition and health," he said. "It's time to listen to the science."

Indeed. But Dr. Gaesser, I am a nutrition and fitness expert, and I listen to the science. And science shows a gluten-free diet, done correctly, is an incredibly healthy way to get all your nutrients, look and feel great, and burn fat. In fact, ditching gluten can actually increase those benefits.

Dr. Gaesser is chairman of the Grain Funds Foundation. So maybe there's just a little conflict of interest there? Of course he's going to come out against gluten-free diets: His whole livelihood depends on people eating grain. And with the numerous benefits people report about going gluten-free, he's going to have to fight much harder to keep those pro-gluten myths alive.

A Gluten-Free Diet Can Help You Lose Fat Fast

Other experts find just the opposite: Eliminating gluten helps you burn fat. "[I]t's right there in the data, clear as day: Lose the wheat, lose the weight," says Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health.

Dr. Davis goes on to say: "Ten pounds in 14 days. I know: It sounds like another TV infomercial boasting the latest 'lose weight fast' gimmick. But I've seen it time and time again: Eliminate wheat in all its myriad forms and pounds melt away, often as much as a pound a day."

I've seen it with my own clients when they eliminate food sensitivities like gluten. They lose as much as seven pounds and a jean size their first week. Their symptoms go away. They look better, have steady sustained energy, radiate vitality and sex appeal, and ultimately wonder why they ever ate gluten to begin with.

Critics argue weight loss occurs because ditching gluten simply reduces calories. Not with my clients, who replace gluten-containing foods with more nutrient-dense veggies, fruits, and other whole foods.

As you'll see, something far bigger than calories is at work here. Hormonal imbalances, a damaged gut, and numerous other gluten-related problems can contribute to weight gain. Here are seven ways eating gluten can make you fat, sick, and tired:

1. Leaky gut and its accompanying symptoms. Gluten contains a protein with the unwieldy name zonulin, which damages the tight junctions in your gut. Things not intended to slip through your gut wall suddenly get through, creating an immune response. Delayed reactions, which can occur hours or days later, include fatigue, bloating, and other symptoms that contribute to weight gain.

2. Inflammation. Gluten can trigger inflammation in any tissue, which is your body's way of fighting what it sees as a foreign invader. Zonulin's damage to your tight junctions also creates inflammation. Chronic inflammation is not your friend. Besides contributing to nearly every disease imaginable (including diabetes and cancer), inflammation creates a number of problems that stall fat loss, including increased levels of your stress hormone cortisol, increased fluid retention, digestive issues, and feeling sluggish so you're more likely to lie on the couch than burn fat at the gym.

3. Insulin resistance. Many gluten-containing foods have a high glycemic load and raise your blood sugar. Your pancreas responds with insulin, which pulls that blood sugar down. (Oftentimes too far down, which leads to cravings.) When you constantly eat gluten foods, your cells become overloaded with insulin and eventually stop "hearing" its message to store glucose. Insulin resistance is often the result, which slams the doors to your fat cells shut and makes fat loss nearly impossible. The sugar-binding proteins called lectins in gluten can also bind to insulin receptors and trigger insulin resistance. Many gluten-containing breads and other foods also contain high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). It's not just the glucose in HFCS that contributes to insulin resistance. A study in the journal Nutrition and Metabolism also linked fructose to increased insulin resistance.

4. Leptin resistance. A small study done on pigs in the journal BMC Metabolic Disorders showed that lectins, those sugar-binding proteins that cause insulin resistance, may also create leptin resistance. Leptin is a hormone that tells your brain you're full, which means you're less likely to reach for seconds. But when you become leptin resistant, your brain doesn't "hear" leptin's message to put the brakes on the buffet, putting you at risk for overeating and weight gain.

5. Cravings. Ever find yourself uncontrollably eating a box of Wheat Thins or reaching for a third slice of buttered toast? Ironically, the foods you're most reactive to are the ones you crave most. According to Dr. Daniel Kalish, your body reacts to intolerant foods by creating addictive narcotics called opioid endorphins. Like a drug, you have a feeling of euphoria when you eat these foods, and subsequently crave them.

6. Blocks nutrient absorption. Some "experts" express concern that without gluten foods, people will miss out on important nutrients. I've yet to learn which nutrients they're referring to. You can get all the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients you need from lean clean protein, veggies, low-glycemic fruits like berries, and starchy fiber-rich carbs like sweet potatoes and lentils.

In fact, gluten can inhibit nutrient absorption. For one, gluten-triggered permeability inhibits your gut from absorbing nutrients and making vitamin B-12. And the indigestible phytates in gluten and other whole grains are considered an anti-nutrient because they bind and make bio-unavailable important minerals like chromium, which helps balance blood sugar.

7. Hampers thyroid performance. Gluten resembles your thyroid, so when immune antibodies tag gluten for removal, they also trigger antibodies against your thyroid. In other words, you increase your chances for autoimmune disease when you constantly eat gluten. "Many people have been unsuccessful at losing weight due to thyroid disease," says Dr. Alan Christianson, co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Thyroid Disease. "People with the most common type of thyroid disease have 12 times the rate of gluten intolerance as the general population does. Consequently, those struggling with their weight should consider a gluten free diet along with assessment of thyroid status."

For more by JJ Virgin, click here.

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References

Basciano H, et al. Fructose, insulin resistance, and metabolic dyslipidemia. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2005 Feb 21;2(1):5.

Collin P, et al. Autoimmune thyroid disorders and coeliac disease. Eur J Endocrinol. 1994 Feb;130(2):137-40.

Jönsson T, et al. Agrarian diet and diseases of affluence--do evolutionary novel dietary lectins cause leptin resistance? BMC Endocr Disord. 2005 Dec 10;5:10.

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