As I sat in a dining hall picking at my blueberry muffin, I was staring directly at the gluten-free pastries located not far from where I was seated. Out of curiosity, I ditched my poor little muffin and tried one of that pastries, I had heard, could help with weight loss. While I was chewing the sugary dough, I thought about all the ways I’ve attempted to eat healthier, and maybe even lost some weight, when it occurred to me: I’ve never really understood the diet fads that come and go.

Photo credit: Julia Grippe

Why did I decide I wanted to try the gluten-free diet now?  My obsession with the next, best, healthiest diet is something I haven’t exactly pursued with total commitment. I slammed that little ball of carbs and sugar into the closest trashcan and decided I needed to do some research.

Why the hell am I already trying to rid my diet of gluten when I barely know why it’s supposed to be so bad for us?

First things first, what is gluten? According to Olin Health Center’s nutritional specialist Ronda Bokram, gluten really isn’t all that bad for people who are not allergic.  Bokram described gluten as a type of protein found in products such as wheat, rye, barley and common grains that we eat every day.  That doesn’t sound so scary now, does it? I was also reassured that there’s no reason to eliminate it.

“There is no health benefit from eliminating gluten if you don’t have a gluten intolerance,” she said. “The only disadvantage of having gluten in your diet would be if you had Celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity—you wouldn’t feel very good if you consumed it!”

Now, just because there’s a logical explanation for a gluten-free lifestyle doesn’t mean that the uninformed will stop following the trends of celebrity dieting.  Surely I wasn’t the only impressionable college-aged girl to see those photos of Miley Cyrus’ new bod and exclaim an audible “Daa-aa-amn!” After finding out she had given up gluten, there was no need to find out why—I was following this trend even if I didn’t know why.

MSU cafeterias offer gluten-free products. Photo credit: Andrea Raby

Many experts agree with the senselessness of this diet. In fact, back in April when this trend was brought to my attention, USA Today reported about the message this diet was sending to teens.

Registered dietitian Heather Mangieri said, “Though Cyrus did not explicitly say the gluten-free diet helped her lose weight, that is the message fans are likely to take away—and it’s bogus…We actually see people gaining weight on gluten-free diets.”

Why is that? Mangieri went on to explain that to make up for loss of taste, many gluten-free cookies and breads add more fat and sugar. Gaining weight certainly wasn’t my plan, but I fell right into the trap when I traded my blueberry muffin for a gluten-free one.

But giving up gluten may not be the real reason this diet works so well for some.  It may be the addition of fruits, veggies and lean proteins into their diet to compensate for the lack of wheat products they’re replacing. Janice Harte from the MSU’s department of Food Science and Human Nutrition agrees.

“If you avoid gluten, you might decrease your consumption of some foods that are carbohydrate-based and may contain a lot of sugar and/or fat. So that may be a secondary benefit,” she said.  “However, these products […] do not taste as good and are usually more expensive.”

So, my feeble attempt to switch one brand of junk for another was not going to get me very far with any of my health goals. In fact, it may have even set me back!

Fad diets have come and gone, and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve tried my fair share.  I’ve tried many, even the ridiculously unenjoyable lemonade cleanses that promote body detoxification and weight loss (a.k.a. starvation).

But one thing that is starting to become clearer to me is that you’ll never truly gain any health benefits from “dieting” a certain way for a short period of time.  These changes have to be permanent and truly reflective of a healthy, balanced and nutritional diet.

So instead of thinking about gluten as an unknown unhealthy substance, maybe those of us without a gluten intolerance should simply be happy we can eat it without getting sick.

As Bokram put it, “Those who truly are celiac, for example, would probably love to have the option to eat regular pasta.”

So if you don’t need to eliminate gluten, instead pursue the classic nutrition plan we’ve been taught since we were little: moderation, balance and FINISH YOUR VEGETABLES!



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