If you are from my generation, you will definitely remember the movie Mean Girls with Lindsay Lohan who played Cady, the new girl at school. The plot revolves around the clique of stuck-up popular girls called “The Plastics” whose leader Regina, was played by Rachel McAdams. Since Regina always behaved like an obnoxious bitch, Cady came up with a plan to get back at Regina by telling her about these special Swedish protein bars for weight loss called Kalteen Bars. The joke was that these bars actually made her gain weight but she had no idea what was in them since the labels were not in English.
Kalteen Bars were what I call the former snacks I once lived on; they were wholesome, delicious and, yes, “gluten-free.” I got them from the health food store and would often skip meals, relying on these dense, muffin/granola looking bars to fill me up instead. My rationale for eating them – including the fact they were “natural” and low- fat - was that I was having one less meal. So why did I pile on the pounds? In college when I became a strict vegan and didn’t touch sugar, there wasn't the same accessibility to vegetarian salad bars that are now offered on every corner. Rather than have an actual meal, my only option I thought was healthy were these giant, wheat-free, gluten-free, dairy-free cookies or rolled oat bars (Kalteen Bars) along with some kind of naturally sweetened tea, juice, or nut milk. I was doing physical labor from early in the morning until the evening with my clients and that was all following my 90-minute intensive 6 a.m. Ashtanga Yoga practice. Who actually gains weight with that kind of schedule on a vegan diet? I realized my biggest disaster was the “natural” cookies and oat snacks.
Here lies the problem with gluten-free snack foods. You trust what’s in them because the package looks healthy and it appears to come from a credible source. I can assure you, though, that there is no stringent labeling regulation for many of these start-up health companies. These seemingly healthy snacks may look small and harmless. You may even check the nutritional facts and it doesn’t seem too bad. Then a few months later don’t be surprised to see the label that once said “one serving per package 180 calories and 29 grams of carbohydrates” has now been changed to “200 calories and 33 grams of carbohydrates.” And guess what? Now the label says each package is two servings. Accordingly, you are eating a 400 calorie snack, 66 grams of carbohydrates and throw in who knows how many grams of “natural sugar.” Many small manufacturers will try to get away with as much as they can until they get busted.
If your style is to skip a real lunch but instead grab a dense, gluten-free chewy concoction that’s the size of a baseball - watch out! Gluten-free cookies, muffins, pretzels, and oat bars will make you FAT. Doesn’t matter if they are 100% natural, organic, sweetened with honey or agave. At the end of the day, they are still snack foods that should be eaten recreationally. Don’t let the tree hugger labels or the fact that they are sold at the health food store fool you.
Gluten-Free has become the new Fat-Free. Yet following the fat-free trend that was the hype in the 90’s didn’t prevent people from getting fatter. Agreed that a cookie with 25 grams of fat is still worse than a cookie with no fat, but a cookie is still a cookie. Eating a gluten-free bowl of pasta or macaroni and cheese for dinner will still make you gain weight unless you plan to use those carbs to go run a marathon.
Let me preface my opinion by also stating that I happen to follow a gluten-free diet. Additionally, I ask that most of my clients go gluten-free as well regardless if they suffer or not from Celiac Disease. From a health perspective, I see improvements across the board when gluten is eliminated from the diet. Gliadin, a protein found in gluten, tends to cause inflammation in many people. Inflammation also causes weight gain. Gluten intolerance may additionally reveal itself through digestive problems, achy joints, auto-immune disease, skin conditions, headaches and possibly more for people who are sensitive. So yes I feel avoiding foods with gluten is good. It’s less complicated to just consume foods that are naturally gluten-free such as fruits, vegetables, fish and poultry along with red meat, beans, legumes, soy products and grains in limited quantities. Don’t be tempted by foods that are substituted with gluten-free flours or starches to make an otherwise gluten-containing product now be considered healthy.
For example, if you eat gluten-free pasta, the wheat and gluten have been removed but now it’s substituted with rice, potato starch or corn. The same goes for gluten-free bread, cereals etc. What makes this worse is that the gluten-free replications almost always contain more carbohydrates and calories. Check out a box of whole wheat bread versus gluten-free rice bread. Many times one slice is double the calories and carbs. I’m not a fan of either, but you should know what you’re getting into. “Gluten-free pizza” is not a smart substitution when trying to lose weight. Additionally, gluten-free products typically have less fiber and are higher on the glycemic index. This will raise your blood sugar more quickly, fill you up less, and have you craving more food once you’ve finished. If your kitchen cabinets have a surplus of gluten-free goodies, you don’t need throw everything out. Simply see it as a treat or use the remains for a dinner party and don’t restock. Some swaps that I recommend for your favorite man-made, gluten-free foods are the following.
Gluten-free pasta Shirataki noodles: These are made from tofu and an entire bag is only 6 grams of carbohydrates and 40 calories. It’s not exactly the same as having a bowl of pasta, but if you dress it up with some meatballs, salmon or grilled chicken with some fresh tomato sauce or olive oil and garlic with a side of broccoli, you now have a tasty meal that you didn’t blow a workout for.
Sandwich Bread: Udi’s™ makes a decent gluten-free bread if you have an occasional sandwich. Yet, if your preference is to have sandwiches all the time, try stuffing your protein such as tuna, turkey, or burgers in cabbage leaves, Portobello mushroom or a large bell pepper. To fatten it up, add on lettuce, avocado, and alfalfa sprouts. If that doesn’t fill you up, have a side of roasted yellow, green, butternut squash or beets instead of chips or French fries.
Desserts (cookies, cakes, and pastries): We already went over that gluten-free snacks are not the best swaps. Instead have two squares of 80% organic dark chocolate with a few raw almonds or a baked apple or pear with cinnamon. You can also sprinkle a few crumbs of gluten-free granola and add Stevia before baking and it makes it taste like you are eating pie.
It may sound like I’m advocating a very low-carb diet. But the case for most people is we end up making up the carbohydrates regardless if we want to live a normal existence. If you go to a friend’s house for a meal or out to dinner, it’s okay to let yourself go a little. So by being conscious on your own time, you have the room to be less strict in public as long as you’re open about being gluten-free. It’s totally accepted now that no one will think it’s strange. Yet, if you’re in a summer share house with friends and start making sandwiches wrapped in cucumber slices they will think you’re a nut job! So know your company and make choices to the best of your ability with the foods that are being served. Go with the flow, knowing you will go back to your routine in the comfort of your own kitchen. Alternatively, if you go to a restaurant with a gluten-free menu, it’s better to bypass the gluten-free pastas or breads for the novelty. Instead, choose from carbohydrates that are higher in fiber and naturally gluten- free. Quinoa, sweet potato, brown rice, and butternut squash make the best side dishes. But remember, it’s not in unlimited quantities. These starchy foods are best if eaten earlier in the day rather than at night.
To live the Gluten-Free lifestyle, here are my takeaways to get the most benefit:
#1. Ask yourself, “Was this product manufactured to be gluten-free?
Or is this a naturally gluten-free food?”
#2. Follow as many of my suggested food swaps that are realistic when you are in the privacy of your own home (so people don’t laugh and discourage you) and go easy on the grains (even if gluten-free). Eat double portions of green leafy and starchy vegetables for extra fiber and fullness.
#3. Aside from high-quality protein bars and shakes, abandon the habit of eating gluten-free snack foods. This means anything that comes in a box, bag, or contains a wrapper. You can eat them recreationally – but understand it’s not much better for your figure than eating a brownie or slice of cheesecake.