It’s not even Christmas and already the New Year diet stories are starting. The Daily Mail’s article published last month warns of the dangers of ‘faddy diets’ and announces that ‘experts’ have drawn up a list of diets to be avoided. Right up there with the ‘Breatharian’ diet (air and sunlight alone) and the ‘Alcorexia’ diet (eat small amounts of food so that you can knock back the drink) is none other than the Gluten-free diet.
The article refers to the press release from the British Dietetics Association, whose experts point out: ‘Whilst important for those with coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity, there is no credible published research showing that a gluten-free diet per se leads to weight loss in those without. Many foods that contain gluten, like breaded products, pastries, cakes and biscuits, are high in calories, so by avoiding them, many lose weight. Many believe, wrongly, they can eat as much as they like of gluten-free substitutes like biscuits, sausages and beer. Gluten-free does not mean calorie free.’
So according to the BDA, going gluten-free encourages calorie-cutting by default, which leads to weight loss. However, as soon as people over-eat gluten-free products like biscuits, sausages and beer, then the weight piles back on. Scratch the surface of a gluten-free diet that has led to weight loss and what you will really find is a calorie-counting regime, they say. Consequently, if you are not coeliac or gluten intolerant, rather than fuss around looking for gluten-free products, don’t worry about eating gluten-containing foods – just count the calories.
I decided to have a look at the BDA website in search of some further advice. The general stance taken by the BDA is firmly rooted in the low fat, high carbohydrate, calorie-obsessed conventional wisdom regarding diet. As Christmas is fast approaching, I decided to check out their recommendationsfor the big day (N.B. Taken down for review 2014).
For breakfast, they advise: ‘Try breakfast cereals, porridge, bread, rolls, English muffins, scones, malt loaf, fruit bread, currant bun and bagels are all good sources of energy that will help kick start your metabolism and they’re all low in fat’ with an additional recommendation to eat wholegrain varieties where possible. For lunch, a portion of healthy Omega-3 smoked salmon is a good choice to start (although they go on to recommend cooking vegetables in pro-inflammatory Omega-6 oils). For the main course, the turkey comes with a warning though. They advise that it is: ‘low in fat and high in protein so tuck in – but don’t eat the skin or you’ll add lots more fat and calories’ (back to that low-fat, calorie counting obsession). They also advise people to: ‘Roast potatoes using pure vegetable oil, olive oil or sunflower oil rather than lard.’ Forget about the goose fat – that’s presumably so bad that it doesn’t even warrant a mention. We are encouraged to fill up on vegetables though: ‘…as long as they are not covered in butter or any other fatty spreads they are all low in calories and fat and contribute to the five portions of fruit and vegetables you need every day.’ Even the gravy doesn’t escape their beady eyes, just in case you should be tempted to sneak a drop of fat in. By the time we get to reading about desert, I am losing the will to live, but they reassuringly announce that Christmas pudding is low in fat. However, there is a veiled threat awaiting: ‘so to keep it this way; serve with low-fat custard or crème fraiche’. In terms of alcohol, it is clear that complete avoidance is preferable: ‘even better, offer to drive and stick to non-alcoholic options all night.’ Goodness, I bet Christmas lunches at the BDA are such fun.
After all that, it is clear that any diet regime that the BDA recommends would need to be very firmly rooted in the low-fat, high carbohydrate, calorie-counting sphere. Even more importantly, a gluten-free diet in the context of a no grain, real food, high fat, low-carbohydrate diet would most certainly not meet with their approval. It is important to look at the way that they are subtly defining a gluten-free diet in order to knock it down. Instead of a healthy natural diet that avoids all grains, they are suggesting that a gluten-free diet involves the consumption of highly processed foods that are manufactured to be gluten-free. A quick look at some gluten-free products brings up a list of ingredients such as:
…potato, tapioca, maize, buckwheat, sugar, golden syrup, glucose syrup, caramelised sugar syrup, maize glucose syrup, margarine, dextrose monohydrate, sunflower oils, emulsifier [mono and diglycerides of vegetable fatty acids], emulsifier (sunflower lecithin), emulsifiers sorbitan monostearate and soya lecithins, colour anthocyanins, corn glucose fructose syrup, stabiliser hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose…
The BDA stress that foods like this are laden with calories, but the real issue is not the calories. It’s the fact that they are highly processed foods with many ingredients that have no place in a healthy diet. The problem is that it is not real food. When we eat real food that sustains us – meat, fat, vegetables, eggs – and that doesn’t leave us craving for more in a couple of hours, we should not be worrying about the fat content. And gluten-free can certainly mean real food.
In addition, the issue is not just wheat. The problem with some gluten-free diets is that some of the foods allowed often contain other grains that have irritating effects on our gut and that can be just as problematic for our digestive systems, causing inflammation and blocking the absorption of vitamins and minerals. Read Chapter 6 of The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf and you may never eat grains again. Also check out the The Definitive Guide to Grains by Mark Sisson and the Grain Manifesto at Whole9 which has links to some excellent articles on gluten-free foods.
The association of a gluten-free diet with other diets such as the ‘Breatharian’ and ‘Alcorexia’ undermines anyone who has found tremendous relief from eliminating gluten – even though they are not coeliac or diagnosed gluten-intolerant. But as the whole subject of the article is about weight-loss, perhaps they would say that digestive health is a different matter. Perhaps the BDA would also contend that they are arguing against a specific gluten-free diet that contains highly processed foods and not one that is made up of natural, real foods, but they have not made any distinction between the two, and in fact have not even acknowledged that an alternative approach to gluten-free exists.
No doubt the BDA would say that a Paleo diet (by default gluten-free) could only work for weight loss too because it reduces the amount of calories consumed. Everything leads back to low fat, high carbohydrates and calorie-counting. Sian Porter, Chairman of the BDA’s Communications Board states that ‘people will believe almost anything and anyone when it comes to nutrition, food and diet.’ I absolutely agree. Margarine healthier than butter, red meat a killer, eggs dangerous, we’ve heard it all. We have believed and trusted the diet ‘experts’ for far too long and look at the state of the nation’s health.