Gluten-Free Diet Guide: Evaluating Benefits Beyond Celiac Needs

Does a gluten-free diet work for weight loss?

Gluten-free diets have become quite popular over the past decade. 

Originally, gluten-free diets were almost exclusively indicated for someone with celiac disease (such as myself!).1Beyond Celiac. (2010). Celiac Disease: Fast Facts | BeyondCeliac.org. Beyond Celiac. https://www.beyondceliac.org/celiac-disease/facts-and-figures/

‌However, going on a gluten-free diet for weight loss or other perceived benefits has become as mainstream as trying a vegan diet, keto diet, or any other popular weight loss diet or health diet.

But, should you try a gluten-free diet if you don’t have celiac disease or any sensitivity to gluten?

In this diet guide, we will discuss what a gluten-free diet plan is, what you can eat, what foods contain gluten that you must avoid, and if a gluten-free diet is good for weight loss.

Let’s jump in!

Gluten free written in flour.

What Foods Have Gluten?

A gluten-free diet plan eliminates all foods with gluten or foods that could contain gluten. Gluten is a protein found in certain grains such as wheat, barley, rice, and triticale.

For this reason, foods that are high in gluten include things made with refined white flour or whole wheat flour, such as many types of bread, pasta, crackers, tortillas, pancakes, pretzels, cookies, and bagels.

Similarly, gluten-containing grains include whole-grain barley or whole-grain rye, as well as bread made with rye, or beverages or food products that use barley malt, all contain gluten.

Then, less obvious foods that have gluten include things that are breaded or have some amount of wheat, barley, or rye in them.

Examples include breaded chicken nuggets or fish sticks, onion rings, minestrone soup, chicken noodle soup, and some potato chips.

In addition to obvious sources of gluten in foods made with flour, gluten is “hidden“ in many food products.

Gluten has a sticky consistency, so it is often used as stabilizers, thickeners, binders, or textual components in certain food products. 

Gluten free written in flour.

For example, gluten is found in many oat-based granola bars, Twizzler candies, salad dressings, imitation meat like imitation crab, condensed canned soups, soy sauce, processed meat, shredded cheeses, and bouillon cubes.

Additionally, because gluten is a protein, many food products specifically manufactured to be a high-protein version of the food use gluten as the source of “added protein.”

For example, many high-protein cereals add gluten or wheat bran to boost the protein in the cereal. The same is true of many vegan and vegetarian imitation meats like vegan chicken, veggie burgers, and vegan ground beef alternatives. 

In fact, seitan, which is a popular vegan meat substitute, is made of 100% vital wheat gluten.  

Gluten is also found in most beers because beer uses barley or sometimes wheat or rye as the fermented grain. 

However, with the increasing popularity of gluten-free diets, more gluten-free beers and ales are available now.

A gluten-free stamp.

How Do You Follow a Gluten-Free Diet Plan?

A gluten-free diet plan removes all foods and products containing gluten, such as those listed above.

Additionally, if you are following a gluten-free diet because of sensitivity to gluten, particularly if you have celiac disease (an autoimmune disease triggered by consuming gluten), you also need to remove all foods that may contain gluten due to cross-contamination.

Cross-contamination with gluten refers to situations where a food product doesn’t naturally contain gluten, but during manufacturing, there is a chance that gluten or gluten-containing foods could come in contact with the naturally gluten-free food.

This often occurs in food plants where the same equipment is shared by ingredients that contain wheat or gluten.

For example, even if you buy something like lentils at the grocery store, a gluten-free food by nature, if the lentils are processed and packaged on conveyor belts or food equipment that also processes couscous pasta made from wheat flour, the lentils could be contaminated with gluten.

When this is the case, the manufacturer of the lentils must state on the packaging with food labeling that the food is manufactured in a facility or on equipment that also manufactures foods with gluten.

Then, as the consumer, you can decide if this risk is problematic for you.

A gluten-free stamp.

People with celiac disease generally need to stay away from all food that could be contaminated with gluten, meaning all food processed on equipment that handles glutinous foods. 

However, if you are following a gluten-free diet for weight loss or some other perceived benefit of removing gluten from your diet, the minute particles of gluten or the off chance of some gluten in the food may not be problematic.

Oats are the most common example of cross-contamination to be wary of with a gluten-free diet.

You may see certain oats or oat products, such as steel-cut oats or prepared oatmeal packets labeled as gluten-free oats, whereas others do not have this designation on the package.

Essentially, it’s not that the different types of oats inherently contain gluten or certain types don’t; oats naturally do not.

However, food manufacturers cannot list products containing oats as “gluten-free oats” or a “gluten-free oatmeal” product if the oats were processed in a facility or equipment that also processes wheat or gluten.

A person holding their stomach and a stalk of wheat.

This is because for people with celiac disease or severe gluten intolerance or sensitivity, even minute cross-contamination of gluten in oats or other grains that should be “gluten-free grains“ or “gluten-free foods“ can be enough to trigger celiac disease symptoms or gluten contamination.

Therefore, if you are following a gluten-free diet because of celiac disease and/or severe sensitivity to gluten, you should also eliminate all foods processed on equipment that also processes wheat or other foods with gluten.

You will need to look for products certified as gluten-free foods to ensure that the gluten level in even “naturally gluten-free foods“ is below the established level to be considered a GF food.

Here are the main foods to avoid on a gluten-free diet plan:

Foods To Avoid On A Gluten-Free Diet

  • Bread Products: All-purpose flour, wheat flour, white flour, bread, crackers, English muffins, filo dough, pitas, bagels, waffles, pancakes, bread crumbs, pasta, lasagna, couscous, croutons, rolls, hot dog and hamburger buns, breadsticks, canned and prepared biscuits and croissants, pies, donuts, muffins, snack cakes, cakes, cookies, danishes, tortillas, many breakfast cereals and granolas, etc.
  • Snacks: Breaded snacks, crackers, some protein bars, granola bars, pork rinds, pita chips, packaged popcorn, pretzels, combos, goldfish, flavored chips, tater tots, packaged cookies, graham crackers, toaster pastries, cheese dip, etc.
  • Restaurant Foods and Fried Foods
  • Breaded Foods
  • Processed foods that contain gluten, such as salad dressings, gravies, soups, ice cream with cookies in it, protein bars, frozen dinners
  • Vegan meats and imitation meats with gluten or seitan
  • Beers, ales, and lagers

What Can You Eat On a Gluten-Free Diet Plan?

If you follow a gluten-free diet for weight loss or health, the goal should be as it is with any optimal meal plan for weight loss or improving health: eating whole, natural, unprocessed foods from various food groups.

Focus on vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu, or other non-GMO soy labeled gluten-free, fish, seafood, poultry, eggs, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, and healthy fats such as avocados and olive oil.

Avoid processed foods as much as possible, even if they are marketed as gluten-free pasta, gluten-free bread, protein bars, etc. 

Ultra processed foods have been associated with adverse health conditions such as increased risk of obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and weight gain.2National Institutes of Health. (2019, June 4). Eating highly processed foods linked to weight gain. National Institutes of Health (NIH). https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/eating-highly-processed-foods-linked-weight-gain

‌Processed gluten-free products are no healthier than processed foods with gluten. 

In fact, one reason that people tend not to lose weight on a gluten-free diet is that research shows that people often overeat or consume more calories when they think a food product is healthier in one aspect.3Chandon, P., & Wansink, B. (2012). Does food marketing need to make us fat? A review and solutions. Nutrition Reviews70(10), 571–593. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2012.00518.x

Gluten free grains.

Therefore, if you think GF foods are inherently healthier because they don’t have gluten, you might eat more of the gluten-free alternatives than you would have with the regular version.

Moreover, many gluten-free alternatives are higher in sugar and lower in protein and fiber than gluten analogs, so GF foods (processed foods) are often less healthy and less filling than foods made with whole wheat.4Gaesser, G. A., & Angadi, S. S. (2012). Gluten-Free Diet: Imprudent Dietary Advice for the General Population? Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics112(9), 1330–1333. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2012.06.009

Overall, while a gluten-free diet is the necessary treatment for the medical condition celiac disease and can be helpful for those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, according to Harvard Health, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that following a gluten-free diet will result in weight loss.B5oston, 677 H. A., & Ma 02115 +1495‑1000. (2018, January 16). Diet Review: Gluten-Free for Weight Loss. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-weight/diet-reviews/gluten-free-diet-weight-loss/#:~:text=Bottom%20Line

If you are looking for a weight-loss diet, speak with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian to help construct the perfect plan for you and your needs.

A person speaking with their doctor.

References

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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