Yes, it's a broad generalization, but in some cases, going gluten free can be a sign of disordered eating. Here are 5 indicators that cutting out gluten could be a sign of an unhealthy relationship with food.

By Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD
October 15, 2014
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Jennifer Lawrence is known for her no-holds-barred attitude in interviews, which is one of the reasons she’s attracted throngs of fans who admire her unrestrained personality. But one of Lawrence’s latest comments created a flurry of both positive and negative reactions, and sparked an important conversation. In Vanity Fair, the actress described gluten-free eating as “the new cool eating disorder, the ‘basically I just don’t eat carbs.’”

When I heard the comment I had a mixed reaction. My first thought was, wow, that’s a broad generalization, and my second was that she does raise a point—in some cases, going gluten free can be a sign of disordered eating. In one of my previous posts, I noted that in my experience, detoxes and cleanses are increasingly being used as a form of purging, a slippery slope that can lead to a more serious eating disorder, or at the very least keep someone stuck in a vicious cycle that’s unhealthy both physically and emotionally.

This begs the question: how do you know if cutting out gluten may be a sign of an unhealthy relationship with food? Here are five indicators, along with a resource for getting help if you or a loved one may be struggling.

You’ve cut out all carbs, even those that don’t contain gluten

As I pointed out in a previous post 5 Things You Need to Know About Gluten, gluten is not found in all carbs. In fact, many starches, including beans, lentils, brown rice, corn, quinoa, potatoes, and squash are naturally nutrient-rich, gluten-free options. I’ve seen people on a gluten-free diet declare that they can’t eat something that doesn’t contain gluten at all—they’ve become overall carb phobic, and that's unfortunate. A healthy, balanced diet requires some whole food sources of carbohydrate, and the truth is not all carbs are created equal.

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Processed starches stripped of their nutrients and laden with sugar, salt, and preservatives shouldn’t be lumped in with spaghetti squash and quinoa as being bad for you. And not all carbs are inherently fattening: the quality and quantity ultimately determine whether carbs get burned for fuel, like gasoline in your car, or shuttled to your fat cells. If you’ve found yourself avoiding carbs altogether, check out my previous posts Your 5 Worst Gluten Free Mistakes and Fruit Isn’t Making You Fat.

Your only reason for going gluten free is weight-related

If you’ve tested negative for celiac disease, the autoimmune disorder that requires mandatory gluten banishment, the primary reason for cutting out gluten is to alleviate symptoms of gluten intolerance. This condition, while not a disease, can trigger unwanted side effects ranging from bloating to flu-like symptoms and brain fog, which gradually resolve when gluten is removed. If you didn't experience any of these symptoms and eliminated gluten simply in the hopes of losing weight, you may or may not see any results.

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For example, if you were eating lots of processed starches (like bagels, muffins, white pasta, white rice, crackers, and pretzels) and as a result of going gluten free you swapped them for whole foods, such as fresh produce, quinoa, and brown rice, then you may lose weight. But if you replaced processed gluten-containing foods for processed gluten-free foods (think: gluten-free versions of bagels, muffins, and sweet or salty snacks), you may not lose weight at all. Bottom line: cutting out gluten simply as a weight loss tactic, particularly without regard to the healthfulness of your overall diet, may be a red flag. For more, read on to the next section.

You went gluten free in order to be excused from eating certain foods

If your primary reason for ditching gluten was to have a legitimate reason to not eat foods you want to avoid, like bread, pizza, and baked goods, examine your motives a bit further. I’ve had clients do this to make it easier to cope with food-pushing friends or relatives who don’t share their desire to eat healthier, but I’ve seen others use it as a form of self-imposed restriction. In other words, if you don’t have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, and you occasionally want to indulge in something like a slice of pizza or a cupcake, declaring that you’re gluten free takes the option off the table, or at the very least creates more obstacles.

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I’ve seen this ploy backfire, and result in secretive rebound binge-eating (like a whole pizza, box of cookies, or loaf of bread in one sitting). If you’re in this boat, think through your next move. It’s never too late to let friends and family know that you feel better when you eat healthfully most of the time—that is, when you avoid refined starches or sugary foods, many of which happen to contain gluten—but you still want to have the option of enjoying these foods on occasion, on your terms. In fact, this holds true even if you end up indulging in gluten-free versions of can’t-live-without goodies, like pizza made with gluten-free crust, or gluten-free sweet treats.

You’ve become obsessive about your diet

One of the biggest signs of any type of disordered eating is spending far too much energy thinking about food. If going gluten free seems to have coincided with spending hours each day planning meals, analyzing or scrutinizing your intake, and avoiding social situations that involve eating, it may be an indication that your eating patterns have taken an unhealthy turn. For more info, check out my post 5 Signs You’re Taking Your Diet Too Far.

You secretly binge on gluten-containing or carb-rich foods

Since restriction can lead to rebound binge eating, it can become a dangerous cycle, particularly if purging methods are used to compensate for binges, such as starvation, compulsive exercise, or the use of diet pills or laxatives. If you’re eating a balanced, healthy gluten-free diet, you shouldn’t experience the sense of deprivation that leads to binges—especially because in addition to naturally gluten-free whole-food starches like sweet potatoes, there are gluten-free options for building in occasional treats. Typically, gluten-free eaters who secretly binge are those who made the switch merely as a form of restriction, or who cut out carbs altogether.

If you’ve experienced this, or any of the possible warning signs above, reach out to someone. Confide in a friend or family member you trust, or schedule a consultation with a professional. For more about who to turn to for help, check out this resource from the National Eating Disorders Association.

RELATED: 11 Subtle Signs of Eating Disorders

What are your thoughts on this topic? Chat with us on Twitter by mentioning @goodhealth and @CynthiaSass.

Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches. Connect with Cynthia on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.