Why the Gluten-Free Trend is a Bad Fad

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by Jennifer Fugo on September 14, 2010

I’m gluten-free and, though it pains me to say this, I am starting to hate the gluten-free fad. Some might call it a trend, but I believe it’s become a fad thanks in part to all the mis-information that’s out there equating gluten-free with weight-loss. I’d like to be the first of those who are gluten-free to say (in the words of my dear husband Nick)- STOP IT!  So, here begins my mini anti-gluten-free manifesto hoping to combat all the food marketers and invested parties who’ve been presenting an unfair and misleading tale of the GF diet.

I often wonder where is the uproar from the GF community about the negative news campaign that is brewing about the GF diet.  Instead, there seems to be silence.  Well, I have to live GF. It’s my way of life because I can prove with photos, medical tests and other documented health issues that gluten is a problem for me. Fad or no fad, I’ll still be looking for items and foods that are GF long after everyone has moved on to the next dieting craze.  Despite my own situation, I will never, ever tell people that they should go gluten-free simply because they need to lose weight. I even preface all client conversation that I have with the fact that I do not ever push my way of eating on anyone else. Yes, I have clients that not only eat gluten, but also feel well doing so. And then I have others that are sensitive and need help removing it. I’m okay with everyone’s gluten status no matter what side of the fence they sit on.

What I’m not okay with is people who own GF food product companies making statements picked up by the mainstream press that are just downright incorrect and mis-guided. Especially when they themselves should and possibly do know better. I question what the motives behind what they’re saying…especially when the GF market is exploding and profits in the GF sector are skyrocketing. As an example, let’s look at Erin McKenna. She’s the owner of NYC’s vegan bakery called BabyCakes which offers many selections of GF desserts. I’ve eaten many delicious cupcakes and cookies from her store, but I would never say that her food offers me or anyone else the ability to lose weight while indulging.  Yet during her Today Show interview, Ms. McKenna said that the GF diet is gaining popularity with celebrities “because their nutritionists are learning that actually removing gluten from your diet is a key to weight loss.”

What?!?!  Seriously?!?!  I was pretty disappointed as were several friends whom I know in the food and wellness business.  We all acknowledge that everyone in this nation could benefit from removing a certain amount of the overly abundant gluten protein found in the American diet, however it will NOT cause everyone to lose weight.  Let me repeat that just in case it didn’t sink in the first time.  A gluten-free diet is NOT great for weight-loss.  If some people like myself suffer from inflammation due to a sensitivity that has resulted in bloating and weight-gain, then yes, it will help in that particular situation.  But if you’re not in this boat, then it actually may not help especially if most of the GF things that you’re eating come from a box or bag (ie. food product).  Pasta is still pasta.  Cookies and cake are still…yes, cookies and cake.

Though I appreciate Ms. McKenna’s food contribution to the GF world, her statement does not serve any helpful purpose in educating the general public about a gluten sensitivity or allergy.  And yes, I also question the motives behind the media for printing the soundbites that they do (I will write more about that in another post).  However, the purpose here is to highlight the possible financial motives that GF food product producers have in making statements to the media in order to sell more product.  I’m certainly not saying that GF companies should close up shop and go home, but I think that at times they’re falling to the same level of deceptive tactics similar to the larger food companies in order to sell products.

If I could talk directly to these GF food companies looking to cash in, I would say this: Look at the attention the GF diet is getting.  You’re helping to turn a primetime media awareness moment into a huge bust.  Health claims are flying all over the place that simply don’t belong in the discussion.  The articles and news segments are negatively bashing what should have been a great opportunity for those of us who actually need to be GF.  Stop saying that going GF will cause weight-loss.  Stop making claims that only apply to those with actual sensitivities.  News flash- not everyone has one.  If you want to educate the public as to why decreasing the amount of gluten Americans generally consume would be healthy and how to do that without totally relying on food products, that’s another matter.  But right now, I have friends who attend Celiac tradeshows appalled at how mis-lead the general population is that’s showing up to these events and how good that is for your bottom line.

And for the regular person confused as heck – Don’t buy into any of the marketing out there, GF or not.  Take everything with a grain of salt and know that you are most certainly welcome to email me questions.  If you’ve got any now, please comment below.  Just know this- I don’t buy many GF products.  In fact, my grocery cart is filled mainly with fruits, veggies, legumes, grains and some meat.  Many of my recipes here are not intentionally ‘created’ to be GF.  Actually I’ve found that you don’t NEED to use gluten in everything and that there are many things we Americans commonly eat that don’t contain gluten.  There are also many other cultures who traditionally don’t use much gluten, so it makes their food much more accessible for me to pull ideas from.

Perhaps I’m opening a can of worms here.  I want everyone to realize that gluten-free products aren’t your easy ticket to weight-loss or good health.  Products in general aren’t going to connect you to your best health ever.  Real food will.  If you want to try something out that’s GF, go ahead.  Sometimes its similar and other times much different from the ‘normal’ version.  Just know that GF food companies have a bottom line and some are seeking to turn a specialty market into a mainstream boom.  It’s the ones saying questionable health claims and truly looking to capitalize off the media frenzy that  I want to call out here.  They’re turning our moment from legit awareness to a big bust.

 

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Laury @thefitnessdish September 14, 2010 at 7:41 am

GREAT post, Jen!! That’s so funny because I was on baby Cakes website yesterday, and I was thinking the SAME thing….just b/c it’s GF, does not equate it to be sugar-free, low calorie, etc. There are people out there, like yourself, that seriously suffer from allergies, and HAVE seen amazing results, but only because you were consuming something that your body did not digest, something that took a toll on your body, and once you cut it out, your weight evened out to where it was supposed to be! I post GF things from time to time for the readers, like yourself, that can not eat it….not because it’s a weight loss tactic. I love my brown rice wraps, but honestly, I started eating them bc it was the only wrap I could find that only had 1 ingredient, all the whole wheat wraps were loaded with enriched flour and preservatives….the brown rice just happens to be GF.

Companies will jump on ANYTHING to sell their products, and make claims to trick consumers into thinking it’s what they should be doing…people are always looking for that answer to weight loss, and it’s sad how marketers can influence the general public through ads and claims.

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Jennifer Fugo September 14, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Absolutely Laury! Truthfully, most Americans are eating processed items from packaging. I do pay attention to what’s in other shoppers’ carts at the market and I’m usually pretty shocked at how much is not real food….even at Whole Foods. Sure, some packaged foods are better than others, but merely swapping out GF cookies for the regular ones with wheat doesn’t mean that you can just go to town. It honestly bothers me a great deal that people such as Erin McKenna said what she said as if it was a legit point on the matter. It’s not. And if there are nutritionists out there saying that, then who are they and why are they advising people that this is the way to go. Are they playing on people’s obsession to be thin? Even the Dr. on the Today’s Show clip mentions that if you’re healthy, then you’re probably not sensitive to it. So, does that make me unhealthy? The perception of people with intolerances and allergies is not well explained and, to the general public, not well understood beyond your air pipe closing up and being rushed to the ER.

All in all, I just want people to know that I get why they are confused. I get why so many people think that I’m ‘just being picky’. And I get why people mis-read that my diet is some sort of weight-loss tactic. Articles out there quote experts claiming the GF diet to be the best thing since sliced bread or a cruel trick that’s got everyone fooled. They truly aren’t doing the entire movement/awareness ‘campaign’ justice.

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melissa@ the delicate place October 6, 2010 at 7:26 am

totally agree with this. i had a bad outbreak of hives on my torso and GI distress which led to my diagnosis in august of this year. i don’t buy substitutes (bread, pasta, treats that are GF) so i have lost a couple lbs but i’m trying to gain them back because i wasn’t trying to lose! i know someone who is overweight and had celiac for years. she tried to counsel me and was rattling off a ton of brands that make GF foods. i politely declined because i’m 1. too cheap and 2. why tease yourself? it’s like a veggie eating frankenmeat you know? i’ll stick to using almond flour if i want a cracker and make my own!
melissa@ the delicate place recently posted..Skeletons in the Closet

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Jennifer Fugo October 6, 2010 at 9:54 am

Thanks for commenting Melissa! I totally understand where you are coming from. The one thing I must say is that there are some ‘substitutes’ that have always existed, such as rice noodles, which are actually pretty decent. That’s one instance where I do ‘buy a product’. I just think the key is to limit products in general and focus on eating things that are closer to the way they appear in nature.

Another reason I think that people with sensitivities and celiac think that they can only eat gluten is that it’s used so much in our own culture that we are unfamiliar with what it’s actually NOT in. There’s soooo much that one can eat. That’s my goal- to educate people on all the wonderful foods out there that actually are GF and to inspire them to start eating what’s real, first and foremost!

Just curious, how were you diagnosed and are you celiac or sensitive to gluten?

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Laura March 6, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Jennifer,

Have you heard of some practitioners recommending the “leaky gut diet” which consists of eating only meat, vegies and certain fruits for 4 weeks along with supplements (repair vite) to “allow the gut to heal”? Do you think this is legit?

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Jennifer Fugo March 6, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Hi Laura,
Yes, I have heard of it…I have one client now that is going through it. Though I did not follow this course of action when I was dealing with things myself, I did take certain supplements suggested by a nutritionist that I do believe helped the process. For me, it’s not a question of legit or not…it’s more about what will work for a certain individual. If you have any further questions, feel free to contact me.

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Patricia March 9, 2011 at 10:24 am

Hi, Jennifer.

Great post – I agree with you 100%.

And in addition to the misinformation, when you slap the word “diet” on anything and turn it into a fad, it tends not to be taken seriously any longer. This has become quite obvious to me over the last few years while dining at establishments that offer gluten free menus. A few years ago, when I would dine at one of the few restuarants that offered a gluten free selection I could do so without worry – the server was aware of what it meant to be gluten free and took good care of me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a chain with a GF menu over the last few months and have had the wait person plop a loaf of bread in front of me despite having made it known that I have an allergy upon meeting the server. Doesn’t leave me feeling very confident about the meal and what went into preparing it!

Interestingly enough, and I know this comment is a bit off topic, I have definitely noticed that if I say I have celiac as opposed to a gluten allergy, I am taken more seriously. “Gluten allergy” more often than not gets the eye roll from the server. I suspect it’s the fad that’s causing this reaction.
Patricia recently posted..Love at first sight

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Jennifer Fugo March 12, 2011 at 3:08 pm

I completely agree that a big part of the problem is lack of correct information as well as an abundance of misinformation! I have to be very clear with servers about my meals and even then I’m not always 100% convinced that they understood. It’s just the nature of the beast at this point. Generally, it’s hard for people who do not share your dietary issues to understand why things have to be a certain way. Hopefully time will help to smooth things out for all of us!

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Jenn@slim-shoppin March 12, 2011 at 11:28 am

Great post – and it’s so true how people are equating removing gluten from their diet will automatically make them lose 20 pounds quickly! I don’t have a gluten intolerance, but for people like you who actually do, it’s sad that so much wrong information is out there. Calories are still calories in the end – whether there is gluten or not.

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Jennifer Fugo March 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Hi Jenn,
Very true, however I do my darnedest to get people away from focusing on caloric intake because I personally believe that the body, first and foremost, craves nutrients. If we eat a nutrient dense meal, we won’t need to go back for seconds or thirds, since the nutrient requirements would hopefully be filled. That’s why we’ve got such a high incidence of people who are simultaneously both obese AND malnourished.

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john schmitz March 21, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Thank you for your article. However, and speaking personally, I must dsiagree with your statement that laying off gluten will not cause you to lose weight. I’ve gone on guleten-free diets two times now, a month each time, and my weight plummets when I do this because when you back off the gluten you quit taking in starches that, I, as a graduate food scientist, believe, are the real source of weight gain in this country. These starches turn to sugar and then fat when there is not enough physical activity to use up the sugar created during the metabolism of starches.
regards,

js

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Jennifer Fugo March 28, 2011 at 2:38 pm

John,
Thank you for your thoughts! I just want to clarify that I didn’t say that laying off gluten will not cause weight loss. It certainly did for me. What I did say is that people should not assume that a gluten-free diet means weight loss for them specifically. There are other grains and starches that are gluten-free…so are you referring more to a primal-esque diet that you prefer? I still consume grains and starches that do not contain gluten with no fluctuation in weight. It’s just that I’m sensitive to gluten and balance out what else I eat with healthy choices. Though I agree that a great deal of issues with weight and obesity in our country are rooted in diets too high in starches, there is a distinct different between the inflammation that you appear to be experiencing (similar to myself) and fat.

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Carla April 10, 2011 at 11:28 pm

I agree with you, while I am appreciating the recent influx of new and tasty products, all the false claims may ultimately cause a deflation of the gluten free market when the fad ends. Hopefully with the advancement of new diagnostic guidelines, more true gluten intolerant/sensitive will be diagnosed and the demand for gluten free products will keep the market steady for us that need them! Thank you!

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Jennifer Fugo April 12, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Hi Carla,
I too enjoy some of the new products and there are some healthy ones out there, but its up to the consumer to learn what is good and seek out the ones that actually meet real nutritional needs rather than just eating GF bread at every meal since the option now exists (as many have almost no fiber and are very starchy). So it’s a matter of balancing eating real food with some products sprinkled throughout. At least that’s what I do!

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Carla April 10, 2011 at 11:43 pm

I wanted to ask if other Celiacs or GS people out there have had to defend their “choice” to go gluten free? I put the word choice in quotes because in my opinion it is not really a choice, it is a need!

I have actually stated to someone that we have been doing this for nine years, because they thought we were just following a trend. Believe me, nine years ago it wasn’t even heard of!

My own family member, who I had not seen in 13 years, upon learning we were gluten-free tried to counsel me on the dangers of following a fad diet and that we were just being manipulated by the food manufacturers. It is ironic because he has had health issues his entire life due to being under-weight and iron deficiency! He also has tooth enamel defects. Yet he refused my advice to get tested for celiac disease.

Believe me, I wish I had a choice, it is a pain in the butt sometimes to have to eat gluten free and my children have been excluded on more than one occasion because of it. It is not something we did lightly. This is not some whim.

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Jennifer Fugo April 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Yes, I’d bet most of us do. I certainly have had to…to family members, to doctors, to friends… it’s just how it goes when something is so new. Sometimes people take offense. I wrote about my family’s reaction here if you want to check out that article: http://www.rudisglutenfree.com/2011/02/28/how-gluten-free-affects-the-family-by-guest-blogger-jennifer-fugo/

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Maureen Brancazio December 8, 2012 at 10:16 am

I just discovered this post, as I have recently gone gluten free and am in search of more information. Although I too am Italian, and love my pasta, it really wasn’t that much of a leap for me to go gluten free. See, I actually also love fresh fish, grass fed beef, anti-biotic free/free range chicken, fresh vegies, etc. I am not “overweight”; however, I do need to lose a few pounds. I have to say that I have been gluten free for a very short period of time, and I have lost weight. I have not been formally diagnosed with gluten intolerance, or ciliac disease; however, the more research I did the more it appeared that gluten free may be a solution to my various symptoms of feeling really crappy, bloated and fat. In just my first week of going gluten free I stopped feeling like a stuffed sausage. And again, remember…I am not an overweight person. I think the reason why “some” push weight loss associated with a gluten free diet is because once making that leap, people stop consuming the typical items that they used to enjoy (i.e. McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Snicker Bars, donuts, etc.); therefore, off comes the weight. I was never a “McDonald’s” consumer, but I can tell you that the very act of eating more responsibly…after about one week…the cravings for the “crap” foods disappears. So in that respect a gluten free diet is magical. It can really transform your life.

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