Weight Loss on a Gluten Free Diet?

I have a pet peeve. It is a question that goes like this: “Do you think I should follow a gluten free diet so I can lose weight?” No, you should not follow a gluten free diet so you can lose weight. You should follow a gluten free diet if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Gluten free diets do not produce weight loss for people who do not clinically need them.

A recent study looked at BMI (body mass index) of over 600 patients with celiac disease. Individuals with celiac disease tend to have lower BMIs at diagnosis. This is because they are often nutritionally compromised due to their bodies’ autoimmune response to the gluten in their diets. BMI increases when they start closely following a gluten free diet (GFD) because their bodies are able to absorb the nutrients they are eating. That’s a good thing!

In this study, 15.8% of patients moved from an initially normal or low BMI to an overweight BMI category. 22% of patients who are overweight at diagnosis gain weight on the GFD. That’s not such a good thing! The researchers conclude from this study that weight maintenance counseling should be a vital part of celiac disease education.

I think these study results are important for two reasons:

  1. People who do not need to remove gluten from their diets often do so anyway in the hopes of losing weight. Long-term weight loss does not always occur on a GFD.
  2. People who do clinically need to be on a GFD often believe they can eat as much as they want and they will not gain weight. That’s definitely not true.

So let’s examine each of these points a little more closely. Let’s start with the folks who follow a GFD just for weight loss purposes. Why do they often initially lose some weight? Well, they typically remove the cookies, baguettes and donuts from their diet and thus they are eating fewer calories. They also may make the change in the context of larger dietary changes like eating more vegetables or sitting down to regular meals.

Long term, they usually discover the gluten free options of their favorite indulgences that are so readily available. Gluten free brownies and cookies taste great (especially nowadays). They may also replace the whole grain, high fiber gluten containing breads, crackers and cereals with low fiber, low nutrient gluten free versions. And the weight tends to come back on.

It’s a similar battle for us gluten free folks. We need to adhere strictly to a gluten free diet and we tend to incorporate many gluten free processed food options which are often even less nutritious than their gluten containing counterparts. Whole wheat pretzels may not be a wonder food but they at least contain some fiber. The gluten free pretzels I give my kids have absolutely no fiber.

Sometimes we may feel limited by our gluten free diet and so we decide that we deserve to eat three gluten free brownies because we couldn’t eat the regular birthday cake at the party. That’s a recipe for weight gain.

As practicing nutritionists, we were very aware of this phenomenon when we set out to create a bar of our own.  We greatly appreciate the abundance of gluten free food choices – in fact, it has never been easier for a family like ours to live with celiac disease. And those gluten free pretzels and brownies definitely have their place.  But we wanted to create a gluten free food which is nutritious as well as delicious. Thus, in Zing Bars, you have a gluten free snack that’s an excellent source of protein, fiber and healthy fats.  You can feel good about eating our bars and not just because they are gluten free.

So the message for all of us is that gluten free diets do not produce magical weight loss or weight gain. The weight outcome is based on our food choices no matter what eating plan we follow. Whether our diet is gluten free or gluten-filled, it is important to focus on foods that are nutritious as possible. Then our diets are filling and satisfying and we have an easier time maintaining our weight.

Reference:

Kabbani TA et al. Body mass index and the risk of obesity in coeliac disease treated with the gluten-free diet. Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics. 2012. Mar;35(6):723-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=22316503

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