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Why fad diets end up working

Useful teachings using gluten-free diets as an example



The gist

  1. Many of the gluten-free diet programs out there do not just suggest eliminating gluten.

  2. Wheat products are typically quite easy to eat a lot of. Particularly those that are refined, low in fiber and/or low in water content.

  3. Wheat has become the world’s most popular vehicle for processed "junk" food.

  4. Going gluten free can eliminate calories and increase nutrients in your diet, which can inadvertently lead to weight loss.

  5. Gluten-free can be an easy program to understand (which is a key when it comes to successful fat loss plans) because it's straight forward and there is no wishy-washy ‘sometimes’ or ‘moderation’.

  6. Balance and moderation specifically for you and your goals can be tough to find, but the pay off can last a lifetime.

This is not going to be another article on why this ‘fad diet’ is not scientifically (or logically) sound.

There are too many good articles out there on this. If you haven’t read them, here are a few:

Here’s a funny video just for kicks:

Gluten-free’s big debut

Like many big name diets, there was a book that revolutionized the gluten-free diet for the general population - Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis. When you dig deeper into the lifestyles suggested by proponents and books you will often find it is not just one or two things to avoid. In this case, Wheat Belly not only suggests avoidance of gluten, but many other items as well. Here are its guidelines:

Avoid, don't consume

  • Cornstarch and cornmeal: tacos, tortillas, breakfast cereals, corn chips, corn bread, sauces and gravies thickened with cornstarch

  • Snack food: potato chips, rice cakes, popcorn, tortilla chips, trail mix

  • Dessert including cakes, cookies, ice cream, chips, dry roasted peanuts, fruit fillings, granola and granola bars, licorice, nut bars, pies)

  • Rice: all types to less than 1/2 cup per day

  • Potatoes

  • Legumes (all beans, chickpeas and lentils to less than 1/2 cup per day)

  • Gluten-free food (raises our eyebrows, too)

  • Fruit juices and soft drinks

  • Dried fruits

  • Bulger, kamut, barley, triticale, and rye

  • Quinoa, sorghum, buckwheat, millet, oats, amaranth, teff, chia, etc to less than 1/2 cup a day

  • Cured meats (sausages, bacon, hot dogs, salami, deli meats, etc.)

  • Self basting turkey

  • Canned meats

  • Fruit, but you're allowed small amounts: 8-10 blueberries, 2 strawberries, a few wedges of apple or orange. Markedly limit bananas, pineapple, mango, and papaya

  • Dairy products: cottage cheese, yogurt, milk and butter at no more than 1 or 2 servings daily

  • Soy products

  • Fried foods

  • Sugary condiments or sweeteners including ketchup, malt vinegar, soy sauce, and teriyaki sauce

  • Beer

  • Scotch

  • Wine coolers

  • Vodka

  • Flavoured teas

  • Blue cheese

  • Hydrolyzed and textured vegetable protein

  • Energy, protein, and meal replacement bars

  • Veggie burgers and mock meat products

Allowed, co consume:

  • Vegetables

  • Cheese

  • Oil

  • Eggs

  • Raw nuts

  • Uncured Meats

  • Non sugary condiments

  • Ground flaxseed

  • Avocado

  • Olives

  • Coconut

  • Pickled vegetables

  • Raw seeds

  • Herbs and spices

Notice I highlighted gluten-free foods. Hmm… I thought gluten was the cause of all life’s problems? If you follow Wheat Belly or almost any other gluten-free diet programs for the sake of health or fitness (including Grain Brain, The Bulletproof Diet and paleo) they often advise against gluten-free alternative products. You will see this with other diets as well, such as keto proponents often suggesting avoidance of keto marketed processed products.

Looking carefully at this list, all of a sudden, we don’t just have a gluten-free diet, we have a low carb, low refined sugar, mainly unprocessed, and very high vegetable diet.

If we match this with the typical North American diet (which is too high in carbohydrates, too high in processed foods, too high in refined sugars and too low in vegetables) we have a knockout! This suggested diet would likely result in an increase intake of nutrient dense (rather than calorie dense) foods, could reduce or eliminate vitamin/mineral deficiencies and increase satiety (the feeling of fullness) to more naturally result in energy deficiency. Sounds like a pretty good recipe for weight loss, if you can stick to it.

What about the one thing to be avoided?

In this case, what about the wheat? Is its absence also contributing to fat loss and better health?

As it turns out, wheat products are typically quite easy to eat a lot of [1]. Therefore, like other fad diets, going gluten-free removes many refined foods that are low in fiber, nutrients and/or water content [2].

Wheat also happens to be one of our staples in Canada and America. Think a bagel with breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner. All over the world wheat is the most widely grown crop and currently provides about 19% of our total daily calorie intake [3]. You will rarely find a menu, let alone a plate, without some type of wheat on it!

The overabundance of over-processed grains

A chart showing the top food and beverage sources consumed by Americans per day, ranked by average caloric intake
Top Sources of Calories Among Americans

Check out the graph above. The number in each bar indicates the average number of calories that food item contributes daily. By going gluten-free, you would eliminate a large calorie contributor (remember 19%) as well as 3 of the top sources of calories (pizza, bread and grain-based desserts) in America. According to this data, avoiding these three sources could lead to an average daily reduction of as much as 400 calories.

Wheat has become the fall-guy. And, a vehicle for calorically dense foods.

When you go gluten-free, suddenly you’re not eating cake, high sugar cereals, pizza, non-filling white bread, calorie dense bagels, muffins, donuts or cookies. These items have now been removed.

One more funny video:

Simplicity is the key

Voila, we now have a diet that can lower calories and likely increase nutrient intake using a SIMPLE guideline: avoid all gluten (or sub in any one of the following: carbs, fat, meat, sugar, dairy, etc.) containing foods. It is easy to understand, straightforward and there is no more grey area for difficult decisions. It's black and white with no exceptions.

Side note: if gluten containing junk food products are just replaced with gluten-free junk food products, a difference in waist line cannot be expected (this is where diet programs like Wheat Belly cover their butts). The food industry has perfected finding equally tasty ways to turn products into gluten-free transporters of high amounts of calories with low nutritional value. Jen Sygo covered this topic in an informative and entertaining article in The National Post that's worth the five-minute read.

Now of course, following one simple rule like avoid all gluten won't work for everyone, and long-term success is likely to be a completely different story. If someone's area of overeating calories is not typically starchy foods, then going gluten-free likely won't make a difference. By this I mean, if the issue is french fries, ice cream and candy (not bagels, white bread, and pasta) then the gluten-free diet may not have much of an impact on your nutritional or caloric intake. Think about this with other diets too. Are the foods you are being asked to eliminate sources of overconsumption? If so, it might least in the short term.

For long-term success and maintaining weight loss (or any fitness goal), remember that following a diet then returning to your old eating habits is likely to lead you straight back to where you started. If what you were doing before caused you to gain weight then it almost certainly will again.


1. Do what works

By no means am I an advocate of the gluten-free diet, BUT I am an advocate of nutrition plans that work. And by 'work' I mean that they meet 4 criteria: 1) you reach your goal, 2) you sustain your goal, 3) you maintain or enhance your physical health, 4) you maintain or enhance your mental health (particularly food and body relationship). If you’ve found a dietary lifestyle (like the gluten-free diet) that works for you and keeps you healthy and happy, high fives all around. But, keep in mind that just because it worked for you doesn’t mean it’s going to work for the physiologically different, psychologically different, ethnically different, financially different, culturally different (etc.) person next to you.

2. Choose whole grains

Want a way to continue eating grains without it resulting in you mowing down a bunch of empty calories? Stick to whole grains most of the time. Whole grains contain more fiber to satisfy you for longer and contain more nutrients than white grains [4].

3. Keep it simple and straightforward

Although the science isn’t there to support its claims of resolving all of life’s problems, demonizing gluten can be effective at driving behaviour change. Simple straight forward rules are easy to follow. However...

Putting in work to find what 'balance and moderation' is for you, may pay off more in the long term.

Many people struggle with the terms, balance and moderation, because they seem ambiguous, but the truth is that they are unique to your body, lifestyle and goals. It takes an understanding of yourself and nutrition to find them. If you need help finding what balance and moderation are for you to hit the 4 criteria of goal achievement discussed here in Learning point number 1, set up a free call with us! We will get started right away setting you on the path to achieving your goals



  1. Holt SH, Miller JC, Petocz P and Farmakalidis E (1995). A satiety index of common foods. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

  2. Gerstein DE, Woodward-Lopez G, Evans AE, Kelsey K and Drewnowski A (2004). Clarifying concepts about macronutrients’ effects on satiation and satiety. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 10.1016/j.jada.2004.04.027

  3. Braun HJ, Atlin G and Payne T (2010). Multi-location testing as a tool to identify plant response to global climate change. Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International. 10.1079/9781845936334.0115

  4. Holt SH, Brand-Miller JC and Stitt PA (2001). The Effects of Equal-energy Portions of Different Breads on Blood Glucose Levels, Feelings of Fullness and Subsequent Food Intake. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 10.1016/S0002-8223(01)00192-4


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