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The popularity of gluten-free food products has soared in the past few years, with supermarkets carrying everything from gluten-free cake mix and crackers to pasta and pancake mix. In fact, sales of these products are expected to hit $10.5 billion this year - a 44 percent jump from 2011, according to the latest estimate.
But there's only a very small number of people who, for medical reasons, need to avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat and related grains such as barley and rye. About 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease, which means they can't digest gluten. So who else is buying all those gluten-free products?
A new report by market research firm Mintel found that it's primarily people who think avoiding gluten is healthier and could help them slim down. A survey of 2,000 Americans showed that 65 percent who eat gluten-free foods think the foods are healthier, and 27 percent think eating gluten-free can help them shed weight.
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"It's really interesting to see that consumers think gluten-free foods are healthier and can help them lose weight, because there's been no research affirming these beliefs," Amanda Topper, a food analyst at Mintel, said in a statement.
Still, avoiding bread, baked goods and other products containing wheat has caught on, championed by celebrities, athletes and the best-selling book Wheat Belly, by William Davis, M.D., a cardiologist.
Svelte stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckham and Miley Cyrus have touted a gluten-free diet for staying slim, and athletes like Wimbledon champ Novak Djokovic and Super Bowl quarterback Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints have credited their health and success to diets that are gluten-free.
So can going against the grain, so to speak, really help you shed pounds?
Well, yes, but probably because you're cutting out "calorie-dense refined carbohydrates, like pasta, bagels, baked goods and crackers," says Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
"However, more often than not, going gluten-free may actually cause weight gain," she adds. "Many of the gluten-free options in the store these days have even more calories than their gluten-containing counterparts."
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Processed gluten-free foods tend to be higher in fat, calories and sugar - to make up for the missing gluten - and lower in fiber, vitamins and minerals. So if you're simply trading one type of junk food for a gluten-free version, it really isn't going to help your waistline.
For those who truly need to avoid gluten because of an allergy or intolerance, Rumsey recommends replacing the gluten-containing foods with more fruits, vegetables and healthy gluten-free whole grains like quinoa or wild rice.
Bottom line: Cleaning up your diet by avoiding too much white flour, sugar and processed snack foods is undoubtedly a good thing for everyone, not just those who want to avoid gluten.
If, though, you are gluten-sensitive or have a wheat allergy, check out these AARP recipes for gluten-free versions of favorites like banana bread, pizza dough and red velvet cake.
Photo: Austin Kirk/Flickr
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