Despite social media and celebrity testimonials, there is no scientific evidence that the gluten-free diet alone leads to weight loss.
According to Lori Welstead, MS, RDN, LD, nutrition advisor at the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, weight gain once going gluten-free is extremely common. “At every initial visit with a new patient with celiac disease, I make sure they know that they may gain weight on the gluten-free diet for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Weight gain can occur in patients who have celiac disease because their villi, which is the carpet of hairs lining the intestine that are responsible for absorbing nutrients and enzymes to break down certain foods, that have been blunted, or flattened, are now ‘fluffed back up’ and normally absorbing nutrients.”
This results in unwanted pounds for many of her patients, who previously were able to eat “whatever they wanted” without gaining significant weight, she said.
Welstead said the quality of gluten-free processed foods may play a role, noting, “Gluten means ‘glue’ in Latin; it is the protein portion of wheat, barley and rye, but it also provides the flaky, fluffy, crunchy and crispy textures in foods.” To improve the taste and mouthfeel of gluten-free products, manufacturers often turn to additional fat and sugar as a replacement. “Unfortunately, many gluten-free processed foods, including anything from cookies and crackers to bread, often contain more carbohydrates and fat than gluten-containing foods,” warned Welstead.
Finally, adapting to a strict, lifelong diet can increase emotional eating, said Welstead. “It’s not easy, and many feel overwhelmed, anxious and depressed. This may lead to ‘treating yourself’ more often with high-calorie gluten-free foods.”
Welstead admits that even she wasn’t immune: “Personally, when I was first diagnosed, I was guilty of this. Because I was mourning my favorite gluten-containing foods, I would find myself randomly purchasing cookies, crackers and other items that I wouldn’t have eaten prior to diagnosis.” Welstead discusses potential weight gain with her patients not to discourage them, she said, but to arm them with the knowledge of how to deal with it.
Welsteadr shares these tips for managing weight gain while eating gluten-free.
- Find the balance. Instead of trying to find replacements for all your favorite gluten-containing foods, Welstead recommends a more moderate approach. “Although I still enjoy trying all the new gluten-free foods out there and treating myself, I don’t at every meal and snack.”
- Think naturally gluten free whenever possible. “Aim for a less-processed gluten-free diet; load up on naturally gluten-free foods, such as fish, lean meat, poultry, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and dairy (if tolerated).”
- Get moving! Aim for about 30 minutes a day, five days a week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking.
- Think benefits beyond the scale. Improved fitness and healthier eating can improve your quality of life long-term, even without losing weight.