4 Reasons People Lose Weight When They Go Gluten Free

Gluten free joke

This is a guest post by Thalia Prum, Accredited Practicing Dietitian.

Gluten free: A favorite claim in the food packaging world. Gluten free bread, gluten free cookies, gluten free pasta, gluten free water, gluten free gluten. The whole world’s gone gaga for gluten free. It seems every man and his dog are preaching the benefits of gluten free diets. What does the science say? Fad, fiction, fact or downright foolish?

But first, what is celiac disease (CD)? It is an autoimmune disease where the body reacts negatively to gluten.

What isn’t CD? Ordering from the ‘gluten free’ menu at a restaurant because you want to feel special.

What else isn’t CD? Feeling sick after you put too much in your pie hole.

What definitely isn’t CD? Farting after you eat a sandwich (oh yes, I said it!)

CD is characterized by damage to the intestines caused by gluten. The damage is flattening and chronic inflammation of the ‘villi’ in the intestines, termed ‘villous atrophy’ (see Fig 1).

Villi damage

Image: Dr. David Elliot

These ‘villi’ are finger-like projections lining your gut that increase surface area and allow your body to absorb food particles and nutrients. Another way to think of this is opening your hand: Your fingers are like the villi in your gut. Now if you make a fist, your fingers are gone and all that’s left are your knuckles that are pretty flat in comparison (much less surface area and harder for your body to absorb nutrients).

The first step to diagnosing CD is a blood test. Blood screening alone is not enough to diagnose CD. Positive blood tests require a small bowel biopsy to identify villous atrophy and thus confirm CD.

What is not a CD diagnosis? Your friendly neighbor, or other non-health professional friend telling you you’ve got CD.

Those whose medical tests confirm CD are prescribed a strict gluten free diet for life.
Now that we understand gluten and CD, the next part of the journey is evaluating the validity of the gluten free craze in the general population as it reaches glutenous maximus.

We’ve all read it, heard it or talked about it: Why not go gluten free? The worst answer out there is “it just makes sense”. Actually, it doesn’t “just make sense” at all.
The claim “we eat too much gluten in modern times” is thrown around pretty often. Many modern packaged foods contain gluten, and yes, people who eat them probably do consume more gluten than in times gone by. But this is still no reason to give gluten the boot.
People foolishly think that going gluten free means weight loss. It is true that people diagnosed with CD often lose weight after switching to the necessary gluten free diet. But hold the phone, let’s discuss.

4 Reasons people lose weight when they go gluten free:

  1. A gluten free diet is daunting and restrictive
  2. Many high calorie ‘junk’ foods can no longer be eaten
  3. Many staple foods like bread, cereal and pasta can no longer be eaten either
  4. Fresh, low calorie foods like fruits and vegetables (naturally gluten free) are cheap and easy options.

Ta-da! Cutting out the hamburgers, pies, Corn Flakes, cakes and cookies, coupled with eating more fruit and vegetables… Sounds like a solid recipe for weight loss. It’s gluttony rather than gluten that is to blame for weight problems.

Next up: Packaging! On an excursion to my local supermarket, I perused the aisles and found some great visual aids.

First off, let’s look at packages that state ‘gluten free’ without using it as a marketing tool:

These packages (canned tomatoes, tea, sausages) have a small tag showing they are gluten free and safe for those with CD. It is not a big part of the packaging or the marketing.

Now we move to the packages that attempt to confuse consumers into thinking they are great and healthy options by slapping on various phrases, including ‘gluten free’.

This package uses the phrase “Nourishing kids in motion”, basically saying “if your kid does a sporting activity, this product is good for them”:

Next, it states “gluten free” between the phrases “real fruit rope” and “excellent source of vitamin C”… So I’ll play captain obvious:

  • It’s a fruit flavored rope, not to be confused with actual ‘real’ fruit
  • An excellent source of vitamin C would be real fruit
  • Slapping “gluten free” in with the above phrases attempts to make this product seem healthier

This package epitomizes using key words to sell an unhealthy product masquerading as a healthy one. The term “superfood” is not regulated. Would you buy a bucket of organic, gluten free lard if the manufacturer tagged on the word “superfood”? Just because they say it’s super, doesn’t mean it is. I can dress up my 92 year old grandfather in a superman costume… that doesn’t mean he can fly.

Kale is a dark green leafy vegetable that is healthy. In it’s raw form, 2oz of kale = 30 calories. This 2oz bag of glorified gluten free chips contains a whopping 320 calories. Super indeed.
Just to note, the nutrition panel states this bag is two serves…pfft.

Next up, we have a direct comparison between two ‘like’ products: Pretzels. The gluten free variety (Glutino) is pictured above the regular variety (Snyder’s). When looking at calories, total fat and salt (sodium) in a 1oz serve of each product, the gluten free version strikes out time and time again.

  • Calories: Regular = 110 vs. Gluten free = 120
  • Fat: Regular = 0g vs. Gluten free = 3.5g
  • Sodium: Regular = 250mg vs.  Gluten free = 420mg (!!!)

Generally, gluten free packaged foods are higher in one or more of fat, sugar and salt to help compensate for the texture and taste difference when gluten is removed. This demonstrates how gluten free foods do not equal a healthier option (for those who don’t need to avoid gluten).

Lastly, and my favorite finding from my stupendous supermarket excursion: Gluten free sweets in the form of shortbread cookies.

The packaging claims are ridiculous:

  • “Simply Natural” (top left) doesn’t equal healthy
    • Ricin, arsenic, lead, cyanide and anthrax are also ‘simply natural’… We don’t go around eating them
  • “Simply Balanced” and “Simply Nutritious” (center left and top right)
    • What does this even mean? This product’s first two ingredients are butter and sugar… which of those sound “balanced” or “nutritious”?
  • As a side note, the regular shortbread cookies (Walkers) had 4g of sugar per 1oz, where the gluten free cookies were double that at 8g

Here’s the take home gossip from this gloriously glutinous gab-fest:

  • Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease requiring a lifelong gluten free diet to prevent chronic intestinal damage
  • Without diagnosed celiac disease, there is nothing wrong with gluten in your diet. It comes down to portion size and selecting whole grain options
  • “Gluten free” foods are not automatically healthy

Thalia Prum is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Nutritionist (APD and AN) who prides herself in being the ever witty, facetious, sarcastic, science quoting, ‘myth-busting dietitian’. In addition to writing, Thalia is available to speak about nutrition, health and wellness. Find Thalia on Facebook and twitter @pieholeblogger.

 

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  • Vincent, DC

    Thalia
    A lot of what you say is correct and sound advice. Where it falls short is in the area of Functional Medicine and the growing body of research connecting gluten sensitivity (not CD) to several autoimmune diseases such as Hashimotos Thryoiditis Thus there are valid reasons for more people than.previously though to eat gluten free . Please do take some time to go beyond conventional medicine thinking and look into Functional Medicine.

  • PeaCat

    Actually, going gluten free is NOT a way to loose weight. Going GRAIN FREE is! Gluten free replacements for bread and cereal and other common forms of carbohydrate are often HIGHER in sugars than what they replaced! I follow a modified Paleo Diet that includes REAL raw whole milk and meat. I double up on veggies and salads, nibble on unsalted almonds and walnuts, and include quinoa and other alternative to grains. The items featured in your article are just as processed as what they substitute. The wheat grown today is NOT the same wheat that was grown up until the middle of the 20th century. What is used today is “bred” for higher and higher yields, not nutritional value. Modern wheat, like what is grown in eastern Washington is the product of genetic manipulation and is VERY high in gluten and other proteins now known to irritate the human body and trigger autoimmune conditions like IBD, arthritis or CD. Read “Grain Brain” or “Wheat Belly.” for more information. Both books are authored by medical doctors
    and are available in Kindle editions.

    • Nichole

      That’s the whole point of the article…telling people going gluten free is not a practical weight loss method.

    • Batgirl

      Quinoa is a grain!

      • http://www.andreawrites.ca/ Andrea T

        No, quinoa is a seed that’s used culinarily like a grain, though some people refer to it as a “pseudo grain”. It’s similar to the fruit vs. vegetable confusion when it about plants that are botanically fruit but used like vegetables, such as tomatoes, cucumbers or avocados.

  • Katie

    Celiac is not the only gluten intolerant disease. “Non-celiac gluten intolerance or sensitivity” is also a disease that does not affect the gut but affects the neurological system and the thyroid, among other things. Research estimates that 18 million Americans have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. That’s 6 times the amount of Americans with celiac.

  • The Lone Marmot

    A very practical and humorous article made even funnier by a label that oddly says, um, “Cocked” Bratwurst :-)

  • Nick

    “Without diagnosed celiac disease, there is nothing wrong with gluten in your diet.”

    False.

    • Behr Foot

      Why is that false?

  • anything4bacon

    “Without diagnosed celiac disease, there is nothing wrong with gluten in your diet.”
    Really,.,, so let’s see. If I eat more than a little wheat (or most cereal grains for that matter, especially high fiber varieties) I get abdominal gas and bloating, edema ( puffy ankles and feet), sometimes instant heartburn, sometimes headaches and achy joints, and within 8-18 hours have severe cramping that sends me to the toilet as many times as it takes to urgently shit out the offender.

    Do I have diagnosed CD? No. Do grains make me feel less than awesome in large quantities? Yes.

    So would a responsible professional dietitian insist that I eat a single food that makes me feel like crap? A single food that is almost devoid of nutritional value? When there are unlimited nutrient-dense foods that make me feel fantastic?

    Raw onions and garlic don’t agree with me either. So I avoid them. Same with wine. Do I need medical tests to validate that feeling and justify not consuming these? Would Thalia insist that I suck it up and eat the salsa anyway?

    Not everyone who avoids wheat and grains proclaims to eat “gluten free”…we don’t all seek out gluten-free labeling, or processed gluten-less sub-standard replacements for bread and pasta. To that end,we avoid most foods that come in a package or with a nutrition label. We don’t all eat low-carb either.

    • black

      Dude. A responsible professional would tell you to go and see a doctor.

  • PieHoleBlogger (APD)

    Thank you all for taking the time to read, think about and comment on
    this article. It thrills me to see different opinions and spirited
    discussion. Science and learning are all about that!

    Based on
    the comments, I’d like to respond to these points: non-celiac gluten
    sensitivity (NCGS), diagnosing celiac disease and the debate about
    wheat.

    NCGS: You are absolutely right, this newly emerging
    disorder and has an estimated prevalence 6-10 times that of CD.
    People with NCGS do not experience ‘villous atrophy’, seen in people
    with CD. Therefore, if you have properly diagnosed NCGS, eating gluten
    may cause temporary discomfort, but research shows it doesn’t cause
    long-term intestinal damage. The cause of NCGS is still being
    researched.

    A NCGS diagnosis can be reached only by excluding CD
    and wheat allergy through the proper screening and diagnostic tests.
    More info here:
    http://celiac.org/celiac-disease/diagnosing-celiac-disease/diagnosis/
    http://celiac.org/celiac-disease/non-celiac-gluten-sensitivity/

    For
    people that experience gastrointestinal distress, I understand this is a
    scary and frustrating issue. It does not however, prove that one has CD
    or NCGS. The only way to diagnose these is through the appropriate
    medical tests following the prescribed protocols (see above links).

    Wheat is another highly contentious issue and
    I have indeed heard of the books quoted. It’s great that the authors
    have high quality credentials however, their views are not shared or endorsed by the
    greater scientific and medical community. Let me explain: The research
    quoted in these books are a combination of:

    - Dated studies
    - Poorly controlled experiments
    - Experiments following protocols not comparable to human physiology
    - Estimations of results through extrapolation
    For more information on that, see:
    http://www.pieholeblogger.com/2014/02/quit-your-wheat-belly-aching.html
    http://www.pieholeblogger.com/2014/02/quit-wheat-belly-aching-pt-ii.html

    CD
    and NCGS are areas with a lot of ongoing research and it’s great to see
    people hungry to learn more. Thanks again for reading and discussing.

    • Adri

      A reason why people with gluten intolerance loose weight when they go gluten free is because they live in a constant inflammatory state, meaning they are constantly swollen. Is like living with a constant bee sting. Once the gluten is gone, the liquid accumulation progressively goes down and so does a good part of the weight. After that, is good old dieting. :)

  • tjr

    As far as I know there is no medically accepted test to confirm ncgs. if there were that would be great because it would keep people like YOU from assuming I am making up my symptoms!

    • Anything4bacon

      An elimination diet is about as scientific as it gets. I don’t need to pay a ‘professional dietician’ to figure that out.

  • Nicole

    Most consumers oftentimes get confused that gluten is wheat. So, if something is wheat free, they automatically assume its gluten free. However, gluten is not wheat. It is a structure building protein consisting of glutinin and gliadin. With a lot of gluten in food, there is a lot of structure, which is why it is common in breads, pastas, cakes, etc. A person with celiac merely does not have the correct enzymes to break these proteins down; therefore, affecting the digestive system not to digest it as well.
    Hence, if a person who doesnt have Celiac decides to go on a gluten free diet to lose weight (and I know many); they may be cutting out these structure building proteins; however, most think that all the gluten free cookies and cakes are good for them and okay for them to eat, so they consume them all the time. Some snacks have plenty of added sugars and non-wheat flours that wont pose a weight loss effect.
    Not to mention, wheat (rye and barley) is a whole grain and if eaten as a whole, it provides us with a ton of fiber making us feel fuller longer. The fiber in wheat outgrows the fiber content in rice (and other wheat replacers) extravagantly. Therefore, the person on gluten free diet may consume more.

  • Anything4bacon

    Somebody’s in the pocket of the wheat lobbyists.

    • Guest

      The wheat and wheat by-products have all turned into venomous snakes!

  • Craig

    What an angry article. You can tell that she is very tired of getting asked about CD and gluten in general.

    Couple points to make: Everyone is sensitive to gluten. Some are actually allergies or some have CD.

    The fruit rope she described is basically licorice. Licorice has gluten. It is made with wheat flour. Most sausage is made with gluten as well. She found one that is GF, good for her. I like seeing Gluten Free on a label. It’s one less thing to worry about.

    If you try to replace the standard American diet with a GF diet, you will struggle. The problem is that it is expensive and it’s food you probably shouldn’t be eating anyway. It’s all highly processed. Elimination of the foods that contain gluten and not replacing them is what works.

    As a registered dietitian, I would think she would be advocating for a GF lifestyle. Instead she makes it seem like we are all following a fad.

  • Csillag
  • Jdjohnson

    Love this article! I have so many friends that like to eat gluten free and are “allergic” because they have a little gas after they eat a big meal. I completely agree that moderation and portion size is the key.

  • Hollyann

    It’s funny cuz I’ve been gluten free for over 15 years cuz I was diagnosed celiac when I was 4