By Callie Burke

News about gluten and gluten-free diets is unavoidable. Popular magazines advocate going gluten-free for weight loss; studies link gluten intolerance to dozens of other maladies; and foods increasingly advertise “gluten-free” as a health benefit. With all of this information, it’s easy to get confused about gluten and its effects on our health. This article will focus on common myths about gluten. Correcting these myths should help you decide whether a gluten-free diet is right for you and, if so, how to maintain your health on such a diet.

Myth #1: Gluten-free diets work well for everyone.

While a gluten-free diet works wonders for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, avoiding gluten provides no significant benefits to a healthy person. Gluten-free diets do not necessarily lead to weight loss, increased energy, or limited carbohydrates. Moreover, gluten-free diets can be deficient in iron, fiber, calcium, and an array of vitamins if they are not carefully managed. By completely eliminating gluten, you are limiting your healthy food options—and unless you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, there is no concrete benefit.

Myth #2: Choosing gluten-free options will help you lose weight.

As with most diets, going gluten-free is not a guaranteed path to weight loss. Some people think that by replacing foods with alternatives marketed as “gluten-free” they will be cutting back on calories and facilitating weight loss. This is not true. Since gluten acts as a binding agent, foods that remove gluten typically replace it with extra oil, butter, or eggs. Thus gluten-free options are often higher in fat, calories, and sugar than their counterparts. Additionally, by eliminating high-fiber, gluten-containing products, you may feel less satisfied and eat more. This too can lead to weight gain.

Myth #3: Only grain-based foods contain gluten.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Common grain-based foods such as wheat pasta, breads, and cereals all contain gluten. However, gluten may show up in surprising places. It is often used as a binding agent in items such as lip balm, medicine, and processed food. It can also be found in many sauces, beers, and dressings. If you are trying to avoid gluten, be diligent about anything you consume or use.

Myth #4: Gluten only affects your gastrointestinal system.

The most typical symptoms caused by gluten intolerance are diarrhea and bloating. But gluten also affects the body and mind in many other ways. It has been linked to migraines, joint pain, chronic fatigue, and anxiety. While none of these symptoms alone is evidence of celiac disease or gluten intolerance, you may want to mention them to your doctor and inquire about whether a gluten-free diet might help you.

Myth #5: You can’t eat balanced, delicious meals on a gluten-free diet.

If you do need to eliminate gluten, careful attention to your nutrition can ensure that your gluten-free diet is healthy and enjoyable. Although you need to choose which foods you eat carefully, there are many ways to stay gluten-free and still enjoy food. For example, start your day with an omelet with low-fat cheese and veggies for breakfast. Have a salad tossed with grilled chicken and gluten-free dressing for lunch, and finish the day with Asian rice noodles with veggies and tofu. Sounds delicious and nutritious!

Myth #6: Asking about ingredients at a restaurant is enough to ensure your meal is gluten-free.

The processes with which restaurants prepare meals typically employ gluten. For example soy sauce, modified food starch, and some seasonings contain gluten. Asking to have the meal prepared as simply as possible, avoiding sauces and starches, is the best option to avoid gluten at a restaurant.

Myth #7: “Gluten free” and “wheat free” mean the same thing.

Foods free of wheat can still contain rye and barley. If you have celiac disease or are gluten-intolerant, check labels closely. Watch for ingredients such as graham flour, triticale, kamut, semolina, and spelt, all of which contain gluten. Those ingredients are typically found in cereals, puddings, pastas, and couscous. Beware of other surprising sources of gluten occasionally found in broth, imitation fish, lunch meat, and candy.

Myth #8: Only foods labeled “gluten-free” should be included in a gluten-free diet.

There are many whole foods that don’t contain gluten that should be consumed to ensure a well-rounded diet. Safe choices include fresh fruits and vegetables, pure juices, eggs, honey, seeds, and tree nuts. Unprocessed meats, including fish, chicken, and beef, are naturally gluten-free. Other whole grains such as corn, rice, and quinoa are also safe options. Limiting your intake to foods actively marketed as “gluten-free” is unnecessary and could drastically reduce the variety and healthfulness of your overall diet.