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How can a gluten-free diet help me lose weight?

Dr. Deb Kennedy, PhD
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

A gluten-free diet is not designed to help one lose weight. In fact it is a very restrictive diet, usually low in fiber because you cut so many grains out of your diet. Having said that, however, the act of cutting out processed grains from one's diet (bagels, muffins, cakes, cookies, crackers, bread) usually has the desired effect of dropping some pounds initially. Being gluten-intolerant myself I know firsthand how hard it is to follow this diet and wouldn't recommend it to anyone unless they benefitted health-wise from it. For weight loss I do reccomend switching to a whole foods diet, which cuts out processed grain but leaves in nutrient-rich whole grains.

Ruth Frechman
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Cutting back on foods that contain gluten means that you will be consuming fewer calories. As long as you are eating fewer calories, you will lose weight. Most of my clients over the last 20 years LOVE their carbs, especially rice, bread, and pasta. So cutting back on bread and pasta, which contain gluten, will help you lose weight. However, if you don't need to eliminate gluten, it is not recommended that you cut out foods with gluten, because you may be losing out on important nutrients and fiber.

Angela Lemond
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

A person will lose weight if they take in less energy than they expend. So technically, it is possible for you to lose weight on a gluten-free diet. However, it is not recommended to follow a gluten-free diet for weight loss.

A gluten-free diet is primarily prescribed for the treatment of celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that attacks itself following the ingestion of wheat, rye, barley and sometimes oats. The nutritional challenges with a gluten-free diet include getting adequate amounts of fiber, calcium and several of the B vitamins. Gluten-free diets can be a bit higher in sugar than normal diets because sugar is often used to make gluten-free foods taste better.

Seek the guidance of a registered dietitian (RD) before going on any elimination diets. You can find a RD in your area by going to http://www.eatright.org and clicking "Find a Registered Dietitian."

Judy Caplan
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist
When you eat gluten free, assuming you are not eating lots of processed gluten free foods, you should be eating less carbohydrates which often means less calories. Protein, veggies, fruits, limited amounts of healthy fats, and beans can lead to weight loss if combined with regular exercise.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Gluten-free diets are not designed for weight loss. Doctors recommend gluten-free diets for people who have a condition called celiac disease. A person who has celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten, a protein found in some foods, including wheat, barley and rye. Eating gluten can damage the small intestine of a person with celiac disease and cause symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea. A gluten-free diet can help control celiac disease, but will not necessarily promote weight loss.

Shereen Jegtvig
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. If you follow a gluten-free diet, you'll have to avoid foods that contain gluten, which includes a lot of high-calorie processed foods and snack foods. By replacing gluten-containing foods (breads, pasta, cereal, etc.) with lower-calorie green and colorful vegetables, you'll reduce your caloric intake. If you swap out your gluten-containing foods with other high-calorie foods, you will have a more difficult time losing weight.

Katie Davis
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Gluten is a type of protein found in gains such as wheat, barley, and rye (to name a few). Those who have been diagnosed with celiac disease must avoid eating any gluten because this will destroy the lining of their intestines and eventually affect how effectively they can absorb the nutrients from what they eat. However, recently individuals have been turning to a gluten-free diet as a weight loss tool and even to improve sport performance. Because gluten is found in many processed foods, it is not surprising that a nice side effect of following the diet could be weight loss.

Cutting out processed foods (which tend to be high in calories) and instead consuming fruits, vegetables, and clean sources of meats (no preservatives because these often contain gluten) will likely result in a natural decrease of caloric intake and increase in fiber intake -- both of which have been related to more successful weight loss.

Dorothy Lauren O'Connor
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist
By taking the focus off of processed foods and leaning toward more fruits and vegetables, your caloric intake is less because fruits and vegetables are naturally lower in calories than many highly processed foods. If you don't simply replace your usual carbs with gluten-free snacks (chips, cookies, breads, etc...) you may have the added benefit of weight loss for this very reason.
Laura Motosko, MSEd, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

A gluten-free diet may help you lose weight by simply eliminating many common gluten containing foods from your diet, which may in turn cause you to restrict calories. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It is safe to eat for most people. A gluten-free diet is only recommended to those who are sensitive to it or have celiac disease. Celiac disease causes an immune response to harm the lining of the small intestine causing food to not be absorbed and weight loss. Celiac disease is diagnosed with a blood test, and medical history.

Amy Jones
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

It depends very much on the reason you are choosing to follow the gluten-free diet. Are you diagnosed as celiac or gluten intolerant? If so, following the gluten-free diet will lead to greatly improved health (as your body will be properly absorbing nutrients). 

If you are following the gluten-free diet as a weight loss diet alone, things might be tricky. Gluten-free foods are sometimes higher in calories, and many "junk" forms of gluten-free foods (i.e. cakes, brownies, cookies) can lead to weight gain as well. A gluten-free diet focused on fruits, vegetables, high-fiber grains (quinoa, amaranth, and teff) is a healthier version that can lead to weight loss. 

Romy Nelson
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Not all people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance experiences the “classic” symptoms: diarrhea, weight loss, bloating and abdominal pain. Sometimes, they have depression, joint pain, infertility, irritability, an itchy skin rash -- and yes, even weight gain.

If you are not diagnosed as celiac, but suspect you are gluten intolerant, remove gluten-containing (usually wheat) products from your diet for 3-4 weeks. You may notice major improvements in your health, including an improvement in mental clarity, reduced mood swings and/or improved energy. Also, you may better be able to lose weight, and keep it off. Perhaps you experience freedom from sinus problems and allergies. Some people report improved blood sugar control and a reduction of joint pain.

What is commonly referred to as “gluten” is really a protein group, made-up mainly of the proteins gliadin and gluten. Gluten is found in wheat, rye and barley. (Oats have a similar polypeptide chain, and may not be harmful to those with “gluten intolerance” but often considered harmful to those with celiac disease).

Haven’t humans eaten wheat for a long time?

It’s not that simple. Throughout most of agricultural history, grains were sprouted, which lowers the gluten content. In addition, to compound the problem of over-processed wheat common in the American food supply, the modern day storage of wheat requires the use of chemicals to prevent bacteria and fungal growth. One theory as to why many people are emerging as gluten intolerant is that constant exposure to these pesticides, fungicides and herbicides may tax the immune system. (70-80% of the immune system is related to the GI tract). Another theory suggests the modern day wheat supply lacks the genetic variety characteristic in the wheat of our ancestors.

Constant stress affects overall digestive health, making us more vulnerable to gluten intolerance: If you are under stress -- or your body perceives you are -- your gut health is affected and digestion is impaired. As a result, proteins such as gluten that are difficult to digest become more taxing on the digestive system.

Gluten intolerance (also referred to as “gluten sensitivity”) is different from celiac disease. In celiac disease, gliadin causes damage to the villi, structures in the lining of the small intestine.

If you are gluten intolerant or diagnosed celiac, consult a nutrition professional to make sure you are eating properly, and to learn how to detect hidden sources of gluten.

Ms. Ashley Koff, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

If you have a gluten intolerance it will help the body become less irritated BUT no matter whether you are choosing it or have to follow it (a gluten-free diet). It's critical that you still observe key nutrition principles: quality, quantity, nutrient balance, and frequency. Too much of a food, even a gluten-free food, won't help you lose weight (au contraire) and too little of other nutrients (fiber, iron, magnesium etc) -- which can occur when we include poor quality foods just because they are gluten-free -- also won't help weight loss.

Nadine Pazder
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

The intent of following a gluten-free diet is not to lose weight but to control the symptoms of celiac sprue and dermatitis herpetiformis.

Any change to your lifestyle that includes taking in less energy than you are expending as physical activity will result in weight loss.

If your goal is permanent weight loss and you have a chronic disorder that is managed by a special diet, the logical first step is to obtain a referral from your physician to see a registered dietitian for nutrition counseling.

Linda Kaminski
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist
A gluten-free diet will only help you lose weight if it is also a calorie controlled one. For example, tortilla chips and potato chips are gluten free, but they are also high in calories. If you make a habit of eating a large bag of chips over the course of 1-3 days, you will likely gain weight, gluten free or not. Avoiding gluten in and of itself will not aid weight loss. It all comes down to choices. Making healthy, portion-controlled, gluten-free choices, such as fruits, vegetables, sweet potatoes, quinoa, oatmeal, lean meats, nuts and low fat dairy products is what makes a gluten-free diet a weight friendly one. Going gluten free means you have to avoid all kinds of wheat flour based goodies that are so easy to overeat, such as baked goods, pizza, breads, and pastas, so you end up eating less and losing those unwanted pounds. Now, if you develop a passion for gluten-free baked goods and start to overeat them, your weight could easily creep back up again. Just remember that gluten-free does not mean calorie-free!

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.