Trying to lose weight on the gluten-free diet?
Eating healthy is only half the battle — staying fit really moves the needle.
Trisha’s New Year’s resolution was to lose 10 pounds. She decided to try to control her dinner portions and to join a gym. She was determined and optimistic.
But the first week of January she made it to the gym only once, and for the rest of the month she didn’t get there at all. She also had difficulty controlling her portions at night because she sometimes skipped meals and was hungry after a busy day at work.
Does this sound familiar? Trisha represents the gluten-free clients I see who make a New Year’s resolution to lose weight, only to have it fade as quickly as the ball drops on Times Square.
Still, the new year can be a good time set a weight-loss goal as long as you’re realistic and committed to following good eating habits. Weight loss of one to two pounds per week is doable, so it’s reasonable to expect to lose 12 to 24 pounds over three months. If you want to lose one pound you have to cut 3,500 calories. To lose a pound a week you have to decrease the amount of calories you consume by 500 per day. But if you increase exercise significantly you may have to cut fewer calories.
Healthy body weight
Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight is challenging at best, and with a gluten-free diet in the mix, you have a few extra considerations when you resolve to lose weight. A healthy body weight is considered a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 25.0. An adult is considered overweight with a BMI of more than 25 to 29.9 and obese at 30.
Research shows those who have celiac disease can be overweight or obese both before and after diagnosis. You may find this surprising since weight loss is frequently cited as a symptom of celiac disease. If you are overweight it might even have contributed to a delay in your diagnosis since you did not fit the stereotypical profile for celiac disease. And now that you are feeling better on the gluten-free diet, the new year might seem like the perfect time to get into better shape too.
Or you might have decided to make weight loss a New Year’s goal because you started to gain pounds once you went on a gluten-free diet and your body started to heal. Whatever the case, it’s important to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight by following a healthy diet that limits empty-calorie foods and meets the recommended amount of servings from all of the food groups.
If you want to lose weight you have to recognize that gluten-free packaged foods may contain more calories, as well as sugar and fat, than their gluten-containing counterparts. For example, a slice of wheat bread contains approximately 65 to 70 calories while a slice of gluten-free bread can have anywhere from 70 to 150 calories. Interestingly, although the gluten-free slices may appear smaller, they actually weigh more.
One pitfall of the gluten-free diet is that the feeling of deprivation associated with giving up many foods can cause you to eat foods that would not normally be part of your regular diet. You can’t have morning donuts in the office, so you make up for it by having a gluten-free brownie with ice cream that night. This can lead to weight gain.
And many people newly diagnosed with celiac disease seek out gluten-free foods without paying attention to the fact that they may be high in calories and low in fiber. This is usually true of cookies, snack foods, baked goods and sweetened cereals. You have to limit these foods very strictly to stick to your weight loss resolution.
A plan that works
What does a healthy gluten-free diet that would enable you to lose weight look like?
Start by aiming for the recommended portions of foods from all food groups. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, gluten-free whole grains, lean-protein foods, low-fat dairy foods and heart-healthy oils. Do not fill up on empty-calorie foods from sugar and solid fat. The obvious ones are chips, chocolate and candy, but other examples include processed meats, high-fat cheese, fruit juice, sports drinks and ice cream. Healthy alternatives to these high-calorie foods are lean meat and poultry, low-fat or fat-free cheese, water, seltzer and low-fat and fat-free yogurt.
Read food labels carefully. Check the serving size very closely — the amount of calories, fat, fiber and other information refers only to one serving size. A package, even a small one, can sometimes contain two or more servings. For example, Orville Redenbacher’s Smart Pop Kettle Korn lists 140 calories per serving, and since each bag contains two servings it’s a total of 280 calories if you eat the whole bag. The fat per serving is 2.5 grams, for a total of 5 grams in one bag.
Breakfast cereal can also pack more calories than you would expect. Both Cinnamon and Honey Nut Chex list 120 calories per serving, but that’s only for three-quarters of a cup, not a full cereal bowl. Honey Nut Chex beats Cinnamon when it comes to fat, with .5 grams compared to 2 grams.
Don’t skip meals. When you skip breakfast or lunch, you tend to eat large quantities of food in the evening prior to going to bed. Try to eat three meals a day and one to two snacks if you really need them. If you are having trouble with portion sizes at dinner, try the MyPlate method:
- Fill ¼ your plate with lean protein
- Fill ¼ your plate with gluten-free whole grains or starchy vegetables
- Fill ½ your plate with non-starchy vegetables
Still hungry? Try one serving of fat-free dairy or a piece of fruit
Exercise. It is very difficult to lose weight without exercise, and adults should exercise 30 to 60 minutes a day. It’s easy to convince yourself that you can’t fit a full half hour or hour of exercise into your busy day. But the exercise does not need to be done all at once. Activities can be spread throughout the day.
Keep in mind that the more you move, the more calories you burn. Try to develop realistic goals for exercise such as 10-minute walking breaks three times a day or climbing stairs instead of taking the elevator. Get off the subway or bus a station or two before your destination and walk the rest of the way, or park your car the furthest distance from the door. If you combine exercising more with eating less, it only makes sense that you will be able to keep your resolution to lose weight.
Someone like Trisha would have had more success trying to lose weight if she hadn’t skipped meals and exercised more frequently. When I see patients like her, we go over these basics and develop a weight-loss plan. Then we meet monthly to review the plan and check progress. Following this scenario can lead to weight loss of about five pounds the first month. And this success is a great motivator to stick to a resolution to lose weight.
If you don’t manage to get this kind of result when you make that vow to slim down after the New Year’s countdown, remember there’s nothing to stop you from renewing your resolution any time of the year. A sensible eating plan, with reduced calories and increased exercise, doesn’t have an expiration date.
Suzanne Simpson, R.D., is the nutritionist at the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. She is the contributing dietetic editor for Gluten-Free Living.