Is Eating Gluten Free Jumping on the Fad Diet Craze

Gluten Free: Healthy Choice or Fad Diet?

Before Gluten Free

In the early 1990’s, the white haired outspoken Susan Powter screamed “Stop the Insanity.” She preached eat as much fat free food as you want. It’s not food that makes you fat. It’s fat that makes you fat.

I was a sixteen year old vegetarian that discovered the low fat diet craze. Instead of eating my baked potato with butter, I smothered gobs of ketchup and salt all over every bite. I could snack all I wanted, as long as the food was fat free. My friends and I gleefully ate boxes of SnackWell cookies without remorse.  In retrospect, SnackWell’s are disgustingly sweet fat-free cookies. Shockingly, I gained 20 pounds during my low fat diet craze days.

SnackWell Cookies Part of the 1990's Fat Free Craze

SnackWell Cookies Part of the 1990’s Fat Free Craze

Susan Powter did not invent the low fat diet craze, that wheel was certainly in motion long before her time, but like many diet guru’s of the 80’s and 90’s, she sure did add fuel to the fire.

The Fat Free Craze

The attack on dietary fat and cholesterol dominated the 1980s and 1990s, as scientific studies implicated the American diet as a major cause of coronary heart disease.  In the late 1980s, cholesterol took center stage. Scientific studies suggested that those who ate foods low in animal fat and cholesterol had less cholesterol in their blood. Yet, there was no direct evidence to show that a low-fat diet would reduce heart disease.

Fat Free Pudding

Fat Free Pudding

By the 1980s food producers had begun to realize that low fat could provide profit-making opportunities. The industry began replacing fat with sugar in processed foods, leading to what would by the 1990s become known as the “Snackwell’s phenomenon,” low-fat foods that had just as many calories as the former high-fat versions. Driven by consumer demand and widespread advertising,  low-fat industrial foods filled grocery store shelves.

WOW Chips with Olestra, a Harmful Fat Additive

WOW Chips with Olestra, a Harmful Fat Additive During the 1990’s Fat Free Craze

The Low Carb Craze

The 2000s saw a rebirth of animal protein and fat. Sugar was kicked to the curb.

High Carb versus Atkins Diet Comparison Provided by Atkins.

High Carb versus Atkins Diet Comparison Provided by Atkins

The Atkins diet was introduced in the 1970’s but resurfaced again in the 1990’s and 2000s, generating renewed interest in high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet. Other popular high protein diets soon followed including South Beach, Zone Perfect and the still popular Paleo movement.

Dieters were advised that if they wanted to be thin, they must cut out sugar and manage stress. Scientists showed that stress-induced cortisol promoted abdominal fat—declared the most dangerous kind of fat. One dietary approach was based on the glycemic index, which identified the “good carbs” as those that neither raised blood sugar rapidly nor promoted weight gain. The index offered a scientific way for readers to choose healthful carbohydrates that proponents maintained would not promote weight gain.

Like the fat free craze, the low carbohydrate craze was a marketing gold mine. It is common to find food labels that tout “low carbohydrate,” or “zero net carbs.”

The Gluten-Free Craze

Gluten-free labeling has hit grocery stores in full force. The once “fat free” label has been replaced with “gluten free.” Like the “fat free” craze, food items that are naturally gluten free proudly show the official label of “gluten free.” Food items from soda to canned vegetables display the label “gluten free.” Twenty years ago, these same products displayed the label – “fat free.”

Gluten Free Eggo Waffles Aren't Exactly Healthy

Gluten Free Eggo Waffles Aren’t Exactly Healthy

Like the “fat free” craze, when something is taken out, ingredients must be added to mimic the original product. These new ingredients are generally worse than the original product that was taken out.

Just because it’s gluten-free, it doesn’t mean its good for you.

Udi's Very Popular Gluten Free Muffins and Bread

Udi’s Very Popular Gluten Free Muffins and Bread

In fact, gluten-free is not the healthier option if your diet doesn’t require avoiding gluten. Gluten is a protein, and cutting gluten from your diet reduces the intake of necessary nutrients. There are many recent studies showing evidence to a Gluten-free diet and weight gain.  In a review of studies on nutrition and celiac disease published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, researchers said that a gluten-free diet “seems to increase the risk of overweight or obesity.” The authors attributed that to the tendency for gluten-free foods to have more calories, sugars, and fat than their regular counterparts.

The problem with the gluten free craze is the artificial replacement of gluten. Have you ever read the ingredients on the back of a gluten free bread product? I can’t even pronounce half the items. The additional products in gluten free bread are added to mimic gluten?

Is Gluten-Free Just Another Diet Craze?

According to author Alan Leinovitz, professor at James Madison University and author of the new book, “The Gluten Lie,” gluten-free dieting has gone from something no one had heard of 30 years ago, to a full blown popular movement. He says that the gluten-free gained popularity through the influence of similar fad diets like the “Paleo” diet and the Atkins diet, that preach avoiding processed foods and carbs.

People with celiac disease can’t tolerate gluten, not even small amounts.  In people with celiac disease, gluten triggers an immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine. A related condition called gluten sensitivity or non-celiac gluten sensitivity can generate symptoms similar to celiac disease but without the intestinal damage.

If you are a celiac or have a gluten sensitivity, then yes, by all means eat gluten free. But, for the rest of us, is a gluten free lifestyle appropriate?

Before choosing a gluten free product, ask yourself, “Are all the additional additives and gluten free mimics worse for my health than the original “gluten”?” Do some research and make informed choices before jumping to Gluten Free.


About Melissa Schaar

I am a scientist, teacher, student, friend, and mom. I am on a journey to my ultimate vitality. That journey includes living to the fullest, loving everyday, laughing whenever possible, and a constant state of learning.