Gluten free food has become more readily available over the past decade. Some people believe that cutting out gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and some oats, helps keep symptoms like headaches, chronic fatigue, and depression at bay and even aids weight loss. That may be the case for some individuals, but cutting gluten to help such symptoms and boost weight loss is not a proven method. In fact, research shows that it isn’t necessarily cutting gluten that helps weight loss, but other factors in play. For others that have a gluten sensitivity or Celiac Disease, omitting gluten from their diet is the only way to manage symptoms.
What is Celiac Disease?
Many people who have Celiac Disease, which is an inherited autoimmune disorder, have not been diagnosed. Experts estimate about 3 million people in the United States have Celiac Disease, a disorder that damages your small intestine and keeps it from absorbing the nutrients in food. The damage is a result of the body’s immune system reacting to gluten, resulting in villi, small tubules that line the small intestine, to be damaged or destroyed. This causes issues for the body as villi are what help the body absorb nutrients from food and to your blood via the walls of the small intestine. Celiac disease can cause people to become malnourished, resulting in a cascade of issues. No matter how much food is consumed, the body isn’t able to absorb nutrients, which can lead to issues like joint pain, seizures, and anemia. Other symptoms can include cramping, bloating, nausea, and diarrhea, all of which can impact daily routines and overall quality of life.
Does cutting gluten help weight loss?
While roughly 1% of the U.S. population have Celiac disease, estimates suggest that 20% to 30% of the US population follows a gluten-free diet. This can be attributed to several factors, including celebrity endorsements about the weight-loss benefits, personal testimonials about other perceived benefits like increased energy, and smart marketing from producers of gluten-free foods (read more about what food terms actually mean, here). Consumer surveys reveal that people perceive gluten-free products to be healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts while that isn’t often the case.
Cutting gluten is a necessary adjustment for some, and studies do show that obese people with Celiac disease can lose weight after removing gluten from their diet. But there is conflicting evidence, as several other studies also show a trend of people gaining weight after starting a gluten-free diet (including those with Celiac disease). Why? Some sources explain that for those with Celiac, it may be partly due to improved absorption of nutrients, a reduction in stomach discomfort, and increased appetite after starting the diet.
Weight loss is less likely for those that swap foods with gluten with those that are gluten-free (for people with Celiac and without); gluten-free alternatives tend to be higher in fat and calories than their counterparts, contributing to weight gain. Gluten-free foods are commonly less fortified with folic acid, iron, and other nutrients than regular foods containing gluten, and often have less fiber.
Removing gluten from your diet when you don’t have a medical need can also impact your gut’s microbiome, leading to a slew of other issues. Gluten contains a prebiotic carbohydrate called arabinoxylan oligosaccharide that has been shown to stimulate the activity of bifidobacteria in the colon, bacteria normally found in a healthy human gut. A change in the amount or activity of these bacteria has been associated with gastrointestinal diseases including inflammatory bowel disease, colorectal cancer, and irritable bowel syndrome. While gluten causes harmful inflammation in those with Celiac, there is no evidence that the same is true for those without Celiac; if you find that you experience digestive upset after eating, start a food journal and partner with your provider to pinpoint what may be causing the issue.
There is no compelling evidence that a gluten-free diet will improve health or prevent disease if you don’t have a medical reason to avoid gluten. It’s possible that going gluten-free may help you lose some excess weight, although there’s no published medical study showing whether it works or not. Some researchers hypothesize that for those that cut gluten and experience weight loss, it may be more a result of an awareness of the foods that are consumed rather than a direct result of cutting gluten. If you reduce or remove gluten from your diet, avoid gluten-free processed alternatives, and instead incorporate more whole foods like vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and legumes (in addition to increasing physical activity, staying hydrated, and sleeping well). That way you are building a lifestyle that works towards reaching and maintaining a healthy weight and overall wellness.
For those with Celiac disease, removing gluten from their diet is necessary to manage symptoms. Avoiding gluten solely as a weight loss tactic won’t necessarily provide results and can cause weight gain. Instead of following the trend, adjustments like eating more whole foods and avoiding processed foods can make a positive impact on your weight loss journey without any downsides.