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Myth Buster #2 – Gluten-Free and hCG Diets

Posted Apr 21 2011 12:00am

This second Myth Buster Month post takes a look at two popular new diets: Gluten-Free and hCG.

First, we’re going to take a peak at Gluten-Free diets which are designed for people who have  Celiac Disease, but are now being adopted frequently by individuals simply trying to lose weight.  Is there any truth to this concept?

Before we can evaluate the effectiveness of a gluten-free diet for weight loss, we must discuss a few critical points.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat  products (including semolina, spelt, kamut, faro, and durum), barley and rye grain products.  Gluten is also found in any foods containing these grains, including some processed foods.

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac Disease or CD, is an autoimmune disease in which individuals lack the ability to digest or breakdown gluten. CD causes a toxic reaction in the small intestine which results in damage to the small intestine resulting in limited nutrient absorption.

Symptoms of CD vary with each individual, but commonly include: severe gastrointestinal distress following the consumption of gluten (diarrhea, bloating, gas, etc.), anemia, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, migraines, and joint pain.  If left untreated far worse symptoms can develop including vitamin and mineral deficiencies, gallbladder malfunction, and central nervous system disorders.

Diagnosis of CD involves a blood test which looks for gluten antibodies present in the blood, indicating CD.  People being tested for CD must consume a diet containing gluten for at least 4 weeks prior to testing in order for the blood test to be effective.  If appropriate levels of antibodies are present and CD is suspected, a small bowel biopsy is done to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment of CD involves a strict gluten-free diet to be followed for life.  With adherence to a gluten-free diet, symptoms subside in most individuals and overall health improves significantly.

If you think you may have CD, it is highly recommend that you consult your physician.  Do not make dietary changes without first consulting a physician.

Is CD the same as a gluten allergy?

No. The two are not the same. CD is an autoimmune disease.  It is not an allergy.  Some people can develop allergies or sensitivities to gluten, however the symptoms often do not exceed that of gastrointestinal distress.  People who have a gluten-allergy may develop symptoms at any time throughout their life and often will grow out of the allergy.  On the contrary, CD is a lifelong condition.

Again, if you feel you might have a gluten allergy it is best to consult a physician prior to making any dietary changes to eliminate the possibility of CD.

Within the last year countless people have approached me about starting a gluten-free diet for weight loss.  In most cases, despite my caution they tried a gluten-free diet for a period of time hoping to achieve their weight-loss goals, but came up dry.

The bottom line is, being gluten-free is not an effective weight-loss diet and that it not its intent.  Being “gluten-free” is medical nutrition therapy for the management of CD or a gluten-allergy; it is not a “diet”.   While going gluten-free often does lead to higher consumption of whole foods, including fruits and vegetables, and decreased caloric intake, eliminating gluten from your diet alone will not help you lose weight.  Most people have no problem digesting gluten.  Grains containing gluten have the same caloric levels as that of any other carbohydrate (4 calories per gram).  Furthermore, whole grains such as wheat, barley, and rye offer wonderful nutrients (vitamin E, B vitamins, fiber, and heart healthy fats) as all whole grains do.  Eliminating gluten containing foods from your diet without medical necessity is unnecessary.  Of course, if you prefer to be gluten-free without necessity, it is a perfectly safe way to live.  If you feel better without it, or limiting it, go for it.  But it should not be followed as a weight-loss “diet”.

Myth busted, a gluten-free diet, while fantastic for individuals who require it, is not an effective weight-loss “diet”.

The HCG is the latest and greatest diet craze to hit the scene.  I hear about it constantly from people, on the radio, in magazines … You name it, I see it.

What it is?

The hCG diet promises rapid weight loss by recommending an extremely restrictive diet of 500 calories per day.  This level is far below the minimal recommended caloric intake of 1200 calories daily.  The hCG diet is also founded upon the use of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a pregnancy hormone. HCG is injected either as a daily shot or taken as a sub-lingual tablet.  Diet promoters and developers believe that this hormone promotes fat mobilization in the body and works as an appetite suppressant; however, there is no medical or scientific evidence to back these claims.

Will you lose weight?

The hCG diet does result in weight loss because of the extremely low-calorie diet it promotes.  On only 500 calories a day, anyone will lose weight.  However, on a diet this low the body is in a constant state of starvation.  Any weight loss seen is not effective for long-term success as the body is not burning fat, but instead losing valuable muscle and protein stores.

Because of the drastically low calories consumed on this diet, when a regular diet is reintroduced, the body is literally starving for nutrients and any weight lost will be regained. Furthermore, because this diet does nothing to support behavior change for long-term weight loss success, individuals often fall right back into unhealthy eating habits contributing to further weight gain.

Reliable medical studies to date show that the effectiveness of weight loss on the hCG diet is directly related to the caloric restrictions and is not in any part due to the use of hCG.  HCG has never been proven effective for weight loss or scientifically linked to it in any way.  Most recently, in April 2011 the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a double-blind crossover study showing that there was no statistical difference in the weight loss seen between patients using hCG and those using a placebo.

 Is it safe?

No, on both accounts.

Individuals should never consume a diet of less than 1200 calories without strict medical supervision.  A diet lower than this can trigger severe nutritional deficiencies which may lead to chronic health issues.  A diet lower than this also does not support long-term weight loss success.  The 500 calorie recommendation purposed with the hCG diet is unsafe.

The greater medical community does not support the use of hCG for weight loss and the FDA states that hCG and its claims are fraudulent.  It is considered an illegal dietary supplement and is not an approved homeopathic drug.  HCG is not supported as a weight loss supplement or appetite suppressant due to the lack of supporting research.

In addition to hCG being deemed fraudulent and illegal by the FDA, because the production and sales of hCG is not monitored in any way, consumers really have no idea what they are getting in their products, or if it is safe.  You would never inject a solution or take a pill without knowing 100% that it would not cause bodily harm and that its ingredients are safe and backed by a governing body.  So why would you even consider purchasing this product and putting it into your body?

Myth busted, the hCG Diet promotes a highly unsafe diet (of less than 500 calories a day) and hCG is proven to be ineffective by medical research.

… Is a healthy one.

If you’re looking to loss weight and improve your health, follow a balanced diet containing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and lean protein sources.  Check out The Basic 8 for more tips!

At the end of the day successful weight-loss and maintaining a healthy weight comes down to caloric balance (calories in does not exceed calories out), eating healthy, and physical activity.  Although we often want success immediately, a slow weight loss of 1-2 pounds a week is the most beneficial for long-term results.  There is no fad diet in the world than can provide the type of success which can be gained from leading a healthy lifestyle.

The next Myth Buster’s post will discuss artificial sweeteners.  Keep an eye out for it.  Also, if you haven’t yet, check out the first Myth Buster post on High-Fructose Corn Syrup .  Is it really the same as table sugar?

U.S. News Health. HCG Diet Dangers: Is Fast Weight Loss Worth the Risk? Retrieved from http://health.usnews.com/health-news/diet-fitness/diet/articles/2011/03/14/hcg-diet-dangers-is-fast-weight-loss-worth-the-risk.

Celiac Disease Foundation. Retrieved from http://celiac.org.

MayoClinic. Gluten-Free Diet. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/gluten-free-diet/MY01140.

Lt Col Robert L. Young, MC, USAF; Robert J. Fuchs, MS; Myron J. Woltjen, MD. http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/236/22/2495.full.pdf+html?sid=5c2172da-1a09-4344-871d-02e52721175a.

USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/yourlife/fitness/weight-loss-challenge/2011-01-24-hcgdiet24_ST_N.htm.

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