Will Going Gluten Free Cause Weight Loss?
We all know someone who “lost weight when they went gluten free”, so you should probably try it too, right? Not so fast. In order to understand this complex topic, we should first understand some gluten basics. First of all, what is gluten? Is it a carbohydrate?
Nope! Gluten is actually a protein that is found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten may also be found in many foods that you may not think of (it’s often found in gravies, deli meats, cream sauces, you name it). This is because gluten has an important role in food chemistry – it is responsible for the elasticity of dough. Remember this, because we will get back to this fact later. But first…
Will You Benefit From Going Gluten Free?
The answer is not so clear. It used to be thought that someone should only go gluten free if they have Celiac Disease (also known as nontropical sprue), but now we know there are other individuals who may benefit from eliminating gluten from their diet. For example, non-celiac wheat sensitivity has now been demonstrated as a sensitivity associated with gluten or possibly another compound found in wheat. Since avoiding gluten inherently means avoiding wheat, this is likely to be an effective diet for these individuals. Also, some people may eliminate gluten (mostly – there are some exceptions) as part of the Low FODMAP diet, a widely accepted diet used for the symptom management of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). However, if you do not have a gluten sensitivity or a condition that requires you to avoid gluten, you may want to think twice before eliminating gluten from your diet. A large, recent study1 revealed individuals without celiac disease who followed a gluten free diet were at an increased risk for developing heart disease. The researchers concluded that this was likely due to these individuals eating too few whole grains while following a gluten free diet. Whole grains are important for a lot of reasons, one of which is fiber. (Note: it is certainly possible to get enough fiber on a gluten free diet – but it is best to work with a registered dietitian to learn about gluten free sources of fiber and ensure that you are consuming enough fiber in your diet).
So Why May People Lose Weight When They Avoid Gluten?
It is most likely that many people avoiding gluten are losing weight because they are consuming less processed food than they were before they cut out gluten. Fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten free, as are nuts and seeds, legumes and animal protein sources, such as eggs, fish, poultry and meat. So if people cut out foods like excessive bagels, breads, pasta, pizza, doughnuts and other calorie-laden foods that happen to contain gluten, and consume more of these naturally gluten free foods, they will likely lose weight.
Also, it is widely accepted that consuming fewer carbs will likely result in weight loss. Now, before you start that low-carb diet, let’s get sidetracked for a minute – while research demonstrates a low carbohydrate diet may result in weight loss, this method of weight loss is:
a) unlikely to be sustainable (i.e. you may gain the weight back, because most people are unlikely to eat so few carbs for the rest of their lives)
b) some of the weight lost is likely to be water weight. This is because we store glucose (the simple sugar that carbohydrates are broken down into) in the form of glycogen, which holds 3 grams of water for every 1 gram of glycogen. That’s a lot of water! So remember that the next time you eliminate carbs for a week and drop a few pounds – it’s not necessarily promoting changes in body composition (i.e. altering proportions of fat and muscle within your body).
But we digress – back to losing weight while choosing unprocessed forms of gluten free foods (i.e. foods that are inherently gluten free). The confusing thing about going “gluten free” is it is acceptable on a gluten free diet to eat processed foods that are certified gluten free. This is great for someone who needs to avoid gluten due to medical reasons – it means they have food options just like everyone else. But, remember the role of gluten in food chemistry – it is responsible for the elasticity of dough. So basically, when gluten is removed from a food that typically contains gluten, that food is likely to taste like the cardboard package it comes in. That is why fat or sugar (or both) are typically added to “gluten free” packaged foods – these ingredients will soften the food. They will also replace a protein (typically recommended in increased quantities for weight loss) with a source of fat (higher in calories per gram than both carbs and protein) or sugar (that food so many people are trying to limit nowadays) – or both!
Bottom line? If you are going gluten free and focusing on more whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and protein such as eggs, lean meat, poultry and fish – great, you are adapting an overall healthy lifestyle and are likely to lose weight along the way. Just please make sure to consume gluten free sources of fiber-filled carbohydrates, such as brown rice or quinoa. But if you are replacing your bagels with gluten free bagels, don’t expect those pounds to drop so soon. Gluten itself is not likely to be hindering weight loss goals. In fact, there are many foods that do contain gluten (such as farro or whole wheat sprouted bread) that are recommended as a part of an overall healthy, balanced diet. And these foods contain fiber and protein to boot – which IS associated with weight loss.
- Lebwohl B, Cao Y, Zong G, et al. Long Term Gluten Consumption in Adults Without Celiac Disease and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: Prospective Cohort Study. BMJ. 2017;357:j1892. doi: 10.1136/bmj.j1892.