Gluten-free is all the rage these days. At one time, gluten-free diets were the exclusive domain of people with celiac disease who removed gluten from their diet for health reasons. These days, even healthy people are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon. Why the sudden interest? Some people believe that avoiding dietary gluten helps with weight loss. Is there any truth to this? Here’s our take on the issue.
Understanding Dietary Gluten: What is a Gluten-Free Diet?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale, a hybrid grain that’s a cross between wheat and rye. If you happen to be one of the 2 or so million people in the United States with celiac disease, avoiding all gluten is a must.
People who have celiac disease react to dietary gluten by launching an immune response that triggers severe inflammation of their small intestine. If you have celiac disease, even tiny amounts of gluten can cause diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, abdominal discomfort and a host of other unpleasant symptoms.
There’s also evidence that some people who don’t have documented celiac disease are gluten-sensitive. People in this category experience intestinal symptoms when they eat gluten but don’t have active inflammation. As many as 7 to 10% of the population fall into this category, being sensitive to gluten to some degree or at least feel better when they avoid it. It’s also possible that some “sensitive” people have celiac disease despite testing negatively for it.
How can you tell the difference? The test for celiac disease is a blood test that can be falsely negative. The only sure way to diagnose celiac disease is with an intestinal biopsy. There is no blood test for gluten sensitivity in the absence of celiac disease. The best way to determine whether you’re gluten-sensitive is to eliminate gluten from your diet for 2 weeks and see if your symptoms improve.
Gluten-Free Diets and Weight Loss
A number of celebrities are adopting a gluten-free diet and claiming it helps them lose weight. Is there any evidence it does? There is research, including a study published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, showing that obese people with celiac disease lose weight on a gluten-free diet. Where research is lacking is whether eliminating gluten helps people WITHOUT celiac disease with weight loss.
There are some popular books, including one written by a cardiologist, claiming that gluten-free diets help people who don’t have celiac disease lose weight. The problem is this has never been confirmed by a study published in a peer-review medical journal. There is even some evidence to the contrary, suggesting that gluten-free diets are linked with weight gain.
Needless to say, there are people who claim they lost weight when they eliminated gluten from their diet and a growing number of “gluten-free” zealots that strongly believe that gluten-free diets are the ticket to better health and weight loss. There’s just not a lot of hard science to support their claims.
Our Thoughts on Gluten-Free Diets and Weight Loss
In our opinion, going gluten-free may or may not help you lose weight depending on how you approach it. Since gluten is found in so many processed foods, even ones you don’t suspect like condiments, you have to eliminate processed foods unless you buy ones that are “gluten-free.” That means purging your diet of a lot of “problem” foods like cereals, cookies, crackers, bread, cakes and pies – foods that commonly cause weight gain. If you eliminate these foods, you’re likely lose weight.
Where you may be less successful is if you invest in the growing number of gluten-free convenience foods and snacks out there. These foods aren’t typically lower in calories or carbs than their gluten-rich counterparts. Plus, they usually have less fiber so you’re not going to feel as full after eating them. Whole grains are a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals and when you eliminate most grains from your diet, you run the risk of deficiencies.
The Best Way to Approach a Gluten-Free Diet
Even if you don’t have celiac disease and aren’t sensitive to gluten, there’s really no harm in trying a gluten-free diet. If you take this approach, choose NATURALLY gluten-free foods and avoid packaged “gluten-free” foods. You can always enjoy these foods because they contain no gluten: vegetables, fruits, fish, poultry, eggs, beans and many dairy products. When you follow a natural gluten-free diet, you’re eliminating processed carbs that are such a problem from a weight and health standpoint. In our opinion, you’ll lose weight with this approach.
The Bottom Line?
Can you lose weight on a gluten-free diet? Absolutely – but it depends on the choices you make. The key is to avoid buying into the growing number of gluten-free packaged foods. Just because a product is free of gluten doesn’t mean it’s lower in calories, lower in carbs or better for you. Plus, it may be low in fiber too. That’s not a good thing since fiber-rich foods tend to be more satiating and satisfying.
Should you go gluten-free to lose weight? It may not be such a bad thing if you eliminate processed foods and take a multivitamin to ensure you’re fulfilling your daily requirement of vitamins and minerals but it will probably be just as effective to eliminate processed foods in general and stick with whole foods direct from nature.
J Clin Gastroenterol. 2010 Apr;44(4):267-71.
Am J Gastroenterol. 2006 Oct;101(10):2356-9.
Mayo Clinic. “ Gluten-Free Diet: What’s Allowed ,What’s Not”