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To Many nutrition or sports enthusiasts must have read about the fantastic results that Novak Djovokic, the world’s #1 tennis player, derived as a result of shifting to a gluten-free diet. Not only did he improve in terms of physical conditioning and stamina but he also became visibly leaner with well-defined abs and lower fat on his body. When an athlete as high profile as Djokovic benefits from a gluten-free diet, it is but natural for us to wonder whether we should be considering going that way. Let us understand this today.

First and foremost, please note that a gluten-free diet is necessary ONLY for people with with gluten allergies - a condition called intestinal damage or celiac disease. Also, please note that gluten-free diets can be dangerously nutrition deficient. People may find these diets in response to feeling tired, bloated and correlate to feeling better, as seen in people with gluten intolerance, but the outcome is more likely because they are having less calories in refined flour based snacks actually.

So what exactly is Gluten?

Gluten is a specific protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. It is a binding agent and gives dough its elasticity and ability to rise. It is composed of the proteins glutenin and glaidin (found in wheat), secaline (in rye) and hordein (in barley). There is no nutritional benefit in gluten itself but there are a lot of health benefits to be gained from foods containing gluten.

I strongly advocate whole grains and I fear that gluten free diets are depriving people with nutritional energy sources that are the staple foods of families who have been eating it for generations. The fiber, vitamins and minerals found in whole grains make us feel fuller and satisfied and keep us from eating more in order to feel satiated. If you need a gluten-free diet, you need to be extremely smart about managing it.

Who needs a Gluten-free diet?

People who suffer from celiac disease or gluten insensitivity need a gluten-free diet. . Also, people with an auto-immune disorder, which has a negative impact on the intestines when gluten is ingested, need to avoid gluten. Villi, which are small fingerlike projections on the surface of our small intestine, are vital to the absorption of nutrients from the food we eat. With damaged or flattened villi, gluten intolerant people cannot get the nutrition they need from food and they become under-nourished no matter how healthy the food they eat may be.

The symptoms of celiac disease or gluten intolerance can be gas, bloating, changes in bowel movements, sudden weight loss or weight gain, fatigue and weakness. But beware of self examination and uninformed conclusions. It is easlier said than done - you may need to log everything you eat and how you feel within 2 hours after consuming that particular food. Try this for one week with gluten products and one week without gluten products. If you think you may have a problem with gluten, a blood test can be done which detects abnormal levels of certain auto antibodies. In certain severe cases, an intestinal biopsy may detect damaged villi.

Only if you are assured of your sensitivity or intolerance to gluten, should you follow a gluten-free diet. It is often a very demanding diet to monitor. In fact, one has to be more vigilant about the nutritional deficiencies that can crop up due to the lack of whole grains in the gluten-free diet. One should avoid bulgar, durum wheat, semolina, kamut, etc. if suffering from celiac disease. A switch to cereals like quinoa, sorghum (jowar) amaranth (rajgeera) tapioca, millets (bajra and ragi) or rice, very commonly used cereals in our country, will be beneficial.

Breads, cakes, pastas and cereals may be the most obvious sources of gluten, but the protein also finds its way into many ingredients commonly used in processed foods such as hot dogs, ice-creams, sausages, canned soups and instant coffee. Canned soups and stews often contain modified wheat starch and so do some medications. Beer is distilled from barley and whiskey is distilled from wheat. Some brands of vinegar, soy sauce and even salad dressings contain gluten, so it’s important to read ingredient lists closely. Indian cuisine consisting of mint chutney, coconut chutney, tomato chutney is fortunately free of these. Be wary of cross contamination, as gluten sometimes can get transferred while cooking foods in the same kitchen.

Can a Gluten-Free Diet Lead to Weight Loss?

There’s no evidence that a gluten-free diet leads to weight loss. In fact, moving from “regular” processed foods to gluten-free ones may result in weight gain. A lot of over-the-counter products are been sold as gluten-free products, but unfortunately not all the foods are healthy. Some are very high in saturated fats or cholesterol. Others may be very high in their carbohydrate content, thus high in sugars. Many gluten-free diets are made with refined flour which is fiber drained, leading to high sugar levels and hence more fat storage. It is almost like someone who is avoiding sugar to lose weight and ends up eating lots of sugar-free but fat and calorie-rich sugar-free laddoos and mithais. Besides, gluten-free diets are two to three times more expensive than the regular foods.

Go back to your ancestral times. Our grand parents didn’t feed themselves on pasta, pizza bread or burgers with fried cutlets, mayonnaise and fiber depleted bread and drinking aerated drinks, beer, alcohol, etc.

We are what we eat and hence eliminating any food from our diets unnecessarily and extensively won’t do any good but shall harm you instead. A balanced diet with the right nutrients and their quantum according to your body weight requirements, naturally occurring fiber in local fruits and vegetables, cereals, and a good physical activity will ensure you achieve your goal towards weight loss. Switching to the right food for the right reason is the real long-term solution.

Author Pooja Bhargava is Founder/CEO of Fitness U and Nutrition (F.U.N.) as well as certified Personal Trainer by ACSM (American Council of Sports Medicine) and IIFA (Indian Institute of Fitness Administration), Nutrition Consultant and Physical Fitness expert.

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