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Celiac Disease

The Skinny on: the Gluten-Free Diet and Your Weight

Miserable – that’s how Christine Auman describes the 12 years of her life before her celiac disease diagnosis. She was bowled over by fatigue, anemia, swollen joints, vitamin D deficiency, heart problems, dental problems and more.

“I was passed around from doctor to doctor,” recalls the Doylestown, Pennsylvania mother of two. “Nobody could diagnose me.” Like other patients with puzzling symptoms, she was even advised to see a psychiatrist.

Swollen joints in her hands and feet eventually led her to a rheumatologist, who diagnosed her with celiac disease in 2006 and referred back to her family physician. But that wasn’t the end of Auman’s woes, since the doctor was only superficially informed about her condition. “They gave me a piece of paper that just said: ‘No barley, no wheat, no rye,’” she recalls.

Confused and seeking to educate herself, Auman turned to Dr. Google – the Internet, that is – to learn more. The result? “I became afraid to eat,” she says. Although her symptoms improved on her new gluten-free diet, she found herself “starving” and quickly dropped 15 pounds. In some ways, it was a welcome loss for Auman, who had been moderately overweight. But feeling famished wasn’t sustainable.

Driven by constant hunger and a burgeoning depression, Auman headed to comfort foods found in the gluten-free aisle of the grocery store. “Because I felt like I couldn’t eat anything, I overate the foods that I could eat,” she says. It wasn’t long before she gained back the 15 pounds – “and then some.” Now, she had a life-changing autoimmune disease and a weight problem to worry about.

It turns out Auman’s case isn’t unusual. In a 2006 study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, a whopping 81 percent of celiacs on the gluten-free diet gained weight within two years after diagnosis, and the dietitians Allergic Living spoke to say they see this all the time.

That’s what makes the gluten-free diet’s recent rise in popularity among those who have not been diagnosed with celiac disease so peculiar.

Gluten-free is today is what low-carb was 10 years ago: the “It” diet. Inspired by non-celiac celebrities who tout gluten-free as a way to slim down (we’re looking at you, Gwyneth Paltrow and Russell Crowe), North Americans are turning to the diet in droves. According to a study conducted by consumer market researchers the NPD Group, one-quarter of Americans are trying to reduce or completely avoid gluten in their diets. But if they are doing so to lose weight, they are terribly misguided.

Next: Feeling better – and the weight creep

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Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.