But this is anecdotal evidence; mainstream research still hasn't substantiated the claims of those who believe gluten is bad for everyone. "There is no strong scientific evidence to support the assertion that avoiding gluten leads to benefits for the general population," says Tricia Thompson, M.S., R.D., author of The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide and the website glutenfreedietitian.com.
Still, cutting out gluten can lead to weight loss—but not for the reason gluten-free advocates think. A strict gluten-free diet forces you to stay away from some refined carbohydrates that can lead to weight gain, Field explains. And that, she says, is where the weight-loss secret lies.
Gluten is found in many of the familiar weight-gain culprits: pizza, beer, burgers, pancakes. "Gluten itself probably isn't the reason you've packed on pounds," says Field. "Eating too many refined carbohydrates is what expands your waistline." Commit to staying gluten-free and your food choices can become a snapshot of health eating—fruits, vegetables, brown rice, seeds and nuts, along with meat, fish, eggs, and milk products.
Avoiding gluten also means you're likely to adopt other whole grains and flours that lack gluten, such as buckwheat, quinoa, millet, teff, sorghum, and wild rice (which is not related to white rice). These aren't necessarily healthier options than gluten-rich wheat, barley, or rye, but consuming a wider range of grains gives you even more nutritional variety in your diet. That's another good thing.
I Need to Drop Pounds. Is a Gluten-Free Diet Worth a Shot?
A gluten-free diet can work, but dealing with the diet's restrictions can be daunting. "You have to commit to a true lifestyle change, and that can be tough," says Edward Abramson, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at California State University at Chico and the author of Emotional Eating. "Men might be able to follow gluten-free for a short time," he says, "but without a real medical need, they might have a rough time sticking to it."
But the notion of a panacea for excess weight remains seductive, and that may be part of the appeal of the gluten-free movement, says Michael R. Lowe, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Drexel University who specializes in nutritional approaches to weight loss. It sounds simple: If I do this one thing, then I will see the results I'm after. "That's the driving appeal of elimination diets," Lowe says.
Ironically, the boom in gluten-free products isn't necessarily helpful to those looking to lose weight. "You can buy gluten-free versions of practically every type of wheat-based food— pizza, pasta, cookies, you name it," Thompson says. But here's the catch: Healthy-sounding gluten-free items often contain just as many calories as the originals. People might overindulge in gluten-free options because they seem like "safe" foods, says Field. "People see 'gluten- free' and think they can down an entire box of gluten-free cookies with no repercussions."
So even if you stick to a gluten-free diet, it can actually lead to weight gain. A 2006 study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology followed 188 people with celiac disease (half of whom were overweight or obese) on a gluten-free diet for 2 years and discovered that 81 percent of them gained weight.
If you do give up gluten, use your new eating plan as a lens to reexamine your diet—and your life. Cyclist Danielson says, "I don't know if it was directly tied to the food, but I found that by having to pay more attention to my daily diet, I became more focused on my cycling."