In either of these cases, a gluten-free diet is the only treatment.
However, while those with celiac disease have to avoid gluten, and those with gluten sensitivity feel better when they stop eating gluten, many people who have no issues with gluten choose to follow a gluten-free diet for weight loss or perceived health benefits.
But is a gluten-free diet good for weight loss? How do you follow a gluten-free diet? Are there risks of eating gluten-free if you don’t have celiac disease?
Keep reading to find out!
We will look at:
- What Is Gluten?
- How Do You Follow a Gluten-Free Diet?
- What Are the Benefits of a Gluten-Free Diet?
- Is a Gluten-Free Diet Good for Weight Loss?
- Is It Bad to Follow a Gluten-Free Diet If You Don’t Need to?
Let’s jump in!
What Is Gluten?
“Gluten is a naturally occurring protein commonly found in wheat, rye, barley, and a few other grains,” explains Sapna Bhalsod, MS, RD, a Registered Dietician with WellTheory. “It is what gives bread and baked goods elasticity and helps food stay together when cooking.”
Many people conflate gluten as being a grain.
This is because gluten is found in grains (wheat, rye, barley, and triticale, which is a hybrid of wheat and rye), but as Bhalsod points out, gluten itself is actually a protein, not a grain, and gluten is found in many food products aside from grains.Of course, foods high in gluten tend to be carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta, bread, crackers, and flour, but gluten is also used as a thickener in other processed foods like condiments, sauces, and lunch meats.
Note that a gluten-free diet isn’t necessarily a grain-free diet, as there are whole grains that are naturally gluten-free, such as brown rice, millet, and oats.
How Do You Follow a Gluten-Free Diet?
As can likely be surmised, a gluten-free diet, or GF diet, is one that eliminates all gluten.
“A GF diet entails removing all foods with gluten naturally occurring in them or products with gluten added to them, as well as foods that may hold a threat for cross-contamination,” shares Bhalsod.
In terms of cross-contamination with gluten, Bhalsod explains that although certain grains or foods may be naturally gluten-free, they may be processed in facilities or on the same equipment as foods containing gluten.
This can cause gluten “cross-contamination“ with otherwise naturally gluten-free foods.
Bhalsod says that oats are an example of a gluten-free grain that is not always labeled as “gluten-free” due to the potential risk of cross-contamination of the oats with wheat, barley, rye, or other grains with gluten.
She says that oats are commonly processed at plants that also process wheat products, which is why you may see some oats labeled as gluten-free and other oats that aren’t gluten-free.
Foods to Avoid on a Gluten-Free Diet
What can make it hard to follow a GF diet is that there are many forms, types, and names for wheat, and all of them contain gluten.
Examples include durum, spelt, couscous, semolina, farina, farro, kamut, einkorn, wheat berries, bulgur, wheat bran, and wheat germ.
There are also foods with “hidden gluten,” meaning you might not think the food would contain gluten, yet it does.
A good example is Twizzlers (licorice candy).
Unless a product is specifically labeled as gluten-free and the ingredients label is free from any gluten-containing ingredients, the foods to avoid on a gluten-free diet include the following:
- Gluten is naturally found in wheat, rye, barley, malt, triticale, and Brewer’s yeast.
- Bread Products and Snacks: Flour, bread, cereal, pasta, crackers, cookies, pretzels, granola bars, etc.
- Fast Food: Burgers with a bun, French fries, breakfast sandwiches, donuts, chicken nuggets, pizza, fast food Chinese, tacos, onion rings, etc.
- Processed Meats: Lunch meats and cold cuts, hot dogs, breaded meat, imitation crab, etc.
- Frozen Dinners: Frozen pizza, many frozen entrees, frozen burritos, frozen prepared lasagna, frozen pot pies, etc.
- Sides: Instant mashed potatoes and processed potato products, some packaged rice side dishes, pilaf, etc.
- Soups: Any soup with noodles, most condensed soups like cream of mushroom, minestrone, etc.
- Dairy Products: Ice cream or yogurt that contains cookies or add-ins with gluten, pudding, processed shredded cheese, etc.
- Restaurant Foods: Even if the food is naturally gluten-free, it’s probably prepared on equipment that has had contact with gluten unless it’s a gluten-free restaurant. This may not be a problem for anyone who is choosing to follow a GF diet for health or weight loss, but not for anyone with celiac disease or a real sensitivity to gluten.
- Sauces and Condiments: Salad dressing, soy sauce, tamari sauce, teriyaki sauce, gravies, many Asian sauces, marinades, MSG, bullion cubes, etc.
- Plant-Based Meats: Seitan is gluten. This is a plant-based meat substitute that uses “vital wheat protein.” Many other plant-based meats like vegan chicken and vegan burgers also contain gluten because gluten is a protein (adding nutritional value as a meat substitute) and has a texture like meat.
- Alcoholic Drinks: Beers, ales, and lagers often contain wheat, rye, or barley. Most malted beverages contain gluten.
Is a Gluten-Free Diet Good for Weight Loss?
According to Harvard Health, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that following a gluten-free diet will result in weight loss.
In fact, for those with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet often results in weight gain since nutrient absorption improves after damaging gluten is removed from the diet.
That said, for those without celiac disease, simply going on a gluten-free diet won’t necessarily result in weight loss unless doing so means that you have removed processed foods and refined grains, and consume fewer calories.
If you simply replace whole grains that had gluten or other foods with gluten with gluten-free options, you will not lose weight.
Research actually shows that people often overeat or consume more calories when they think a food product is healthier in one aspect; thus, if you think a GF food is inherently healthier because it doesn’t have gluten, you might eat more of it.
This will result in weight gain.
Plus, many gluten-free foods (like gluten-free pasta, gluten-free bread, and GF cereals) are highly processed, higher in sugar, and lower in protein and fiber than gluten analogs.
“There is no evidence to support that going GF results in weight loss,” says Bhalsod who says that if you don’t have gluten sensitivity but you want to lose weight, you should focus on following a whole-foods-based diet.
“Limit the amount of processed, packaged foods you consume and focus on eating foods in their whole form. By following this style you are not only getting more fiber, nutrients, and vitamins in your diet you likely are leaving your meal feeling more nourished and satisfied,” advises Bhalsod.
“Eat balanced meals with protein, fiber, and fat.”
What Are the Benefits of a Gluten-Free Diet?
There are several reasons why people may choose to follow a gluten-free diet.
The primary indication of eliminating gluten is for those with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in which gluten actually triggers the body to attack its own cells in the digestive tract.
Following a gluten-free diet is a lifetime requirement for anyone with celiac disease, such as myself.
Other people may have gluten sensitivity or other autoimmune or digestive issues that resolve somewhat by avoiding gluten.
“There has been a larger audience of individuals going gluten-free due to their own curiosity and finding symptom relief with going GF.
I suspect more and more people with gluten allergies or sensitivities have noticed a symptom reduction in digestive issues, skin, and overall inflammation,” explains Bhalsod. “With this growing population, going gluten-free has grown in popularity.”
Is It Bad to Follow a Gluten-Free Diet If You Don’t Need to?
“A gluten-free diet limits a lot of food choices and especially the body’s main source of fuel—carbs! A risk of going gluten-free is the potential to undernourish your body,” explains Bhalsod.
She says that if you don’t have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, there’s absolutely no need to avoid gluten.
It is possible to follow a gluten-free diet and not need to take supplements, but if you are not eating a well-rounded mix of foods, and/or you have other malabsorption issues with celiac disease or digestive disease, you may need to take vitamins, minerals, or other supplements.
Work with a nutritionist or your healthcare provider if you have celiac disease or are following a gluten-free diet and have concerns about meeting your nutritional needs.
If you are looking to just start eating healthier but don’t necessarily need a gluten-free diet, check out our guide to clean eating here.