Is a Gluten-Free Diet also a Weight Loss Diet?

Take a stroll down the pasta isle or even the freezer section of your local grocery store and count how many times you see packaging labeled “gluten-free”.  While dozens of new brands making the gluten-free claim are hitting shelves in your local store, other established brands are jumping on the popularity of gluten-free products and making sure fans don’t leave their favorites behind, whether they have a sensitivity to gluten or not. Frito Lay recently posted this list of all their products with less than 20 ppm of gluten.

According to a recent study by the Mayo Clinic 1 in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune digestive disease, and should avoid gluten, but don’t realize they have the disease.  However, a different 1.6 million Americans avoid products with the gluten protein, even though they don’t have the disease. Experts believe a variety of factors could be at play, including a lack of awareness of celiac disease among the population with the disease, while the media is quick to point out celebrities going gluten-free and touting weight loss benefits.

Looking at Gluten-Free and Weight Loss Closer 

The popularity of gluten-free products cannot be denied, with an estimated market potential of $5 billion in sales by 2015. Manufacturers are paying attention to research that indicates as many as 18 million Americans have a gluten sensitivity of some form.  However, many people believe the growth in gluten-free products is fueled by the belief that a gluten-free diet leads to weight loss.

Understanding the gluten protein is the first step in understanding how gluten affects weight gain or loss.  Gluten is found in the mature seed of wheat, barley and rye (what we typically consider grains).  In wheat flour, gluten gives bread its shape, strength and texture by effectively becoming a sticky protein that allows dough to be elastic.  After kneading wheat flour dough, the gluten becomes a natural binding glue within the dough.

Experts debate as to whether it is the gluten or the bread that causes weight gain. High starch foods can be high in sugar, fat and cause inflammation, leading to weight gain if not balanced with the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables in a balanced diet. However, simply replacing foods containing gluten with gluten-free products does not ensure weight loss alone.

Hillcrest Registered Dietitian, Cassie Wrich exaplains, "Going gluten-free does not necessarily change the calorie content of foods. Therefore, if you are going gluten-free strictly for weight loss, you may not get the results you are hoping for."  Wrich adds, " according to the American Dietetic Association, 'a negative energy balance is the most important factor affecting weight loss amount and rate.' Other strategies for weight loss besides a low-fat, well-balanced, energy-reduced diet have included changes to meal frequency, meal timing (ie, breakfast) and portion control. As a Registered Dietitian, these are the guidelines I would support and educate on for weight loss or simply weight maintenance."

For true celiac disease suffers, a gluten-free diet should help them gain the weight they were losing due to a damaged digestive system that could not absorb nutrients correctly. Nutritionists agree, relying on packaged gluten-free products for the majority of your diet is not nutritionally balanced and could also lead to weight gain.

For dieters, without gluten sensitivity, loading up on “not-so-healthy” gluten-free products is not a wise choice for weight loss or overall nutrition. Experts agree a gluten-free diet based on foods that are naturally gluten-free, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, oils, beans, rice, corn, dairy products, fish and meat is the healthier approach to weight loss, as a part of reduced calorie diet with regular exercise.

What is a life-line to the millions of gluten sufferers may not be the right choice for non celiac weight loss diet. If you think you may have a true sensitivity to gluten, consult with your physician.