Here’s how to maintain a healthy weight on the gluten-free diet.
Maybe you’ve seen the latest headlines of another celebrity proclaiming the gluten-free diet as their get-thin-quick cure-all.
“There are a lot of people who firmly believe that going gluten-free will make them lose weight because Oprah or Miley Cyrus said so,” says Cheryl Harris, MPH, RD, nutritionist, dietitian and writer. “But the numbers show, at least for people with celiac disease, many gain weight on a gluten-free diet,” especially if they suffered from malabsorption issues before going gluten-free.
Despite the word “diet,” the gluten-free diet is not a weight-loss program. “Certainly, if weight loss is the goal, just going gluten-free isn’t the answer,” Harris says.
“There is no evidence that simply following a gluten-free diet—without making any other nutrition or lifestyle changes—results in weight loss,” agrees nutritionist E.A. Stewart, MBA, RD. “While it’s true that some people do lose weight on a gluten-free diet, it’s usually because they lower their overall carbohydrate or food intake in general or they simply start eating healthier overall.”
A gluten-free cookie is still a cookie. So if you’re going to gorge on gluten-free cookies, you will not lose weight.
When gluten is taken out of baked goods, often sugar, starches and fat are added to provide structure. Many processed gluten-free foods are made from white rice flour, cornstarch, potato starch and tapioca starch, ingredients that are nutrient deficient.
“No magic bullet. Sorry,” says Rachel Begun, MS, RD, a culinary nutritionist and expert in the gluten-free lifestyle. “There’s a myth going around that if a product says gluten-free, it’s better than its regular counterpart. That’s not really the case. Just because a food makes the claim that it’s gluten-free doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s healthier for you or it’s lower in calories or it’s a diet-friendly food. In fact, many gluten-free foods are made mostly from empty calories, refined grains, starches and added sugars. A diet with too many of these foods is really a recipe for weight gain rather than weight loss.”
If weight loss is your goal on a gluten-free diet, consider these 10 healthy-eating tips.
1. Choose nutrient-dense foods that happen to be gluten-free. “The first foods to reach for are those that are naturally gluten-free. This means lots of veggies, fruit, proteins, seeds, beans, nuts and fish, if tolerated,” Harris says. It can also include moderate amounts of gluten-free whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, millet, sorghum, teff and amaranth.
2. Reduce refined carbohydrates. This means cutting out processed foods, like cakes, cookies and muffins, that contain white rice flour, sugar, corn syrup, cornstarch, potato starch and tapioca starch. “These foods do little to keep us satiated and can spike insulin levels, especially when eaten alone,” Stewart says.
3. Focus on fiber. “Fiber is definitely something you want to get at every meal because it’s very satiating and it’s what keeps us full,” Begun says. “Foods that are high in fiber are fruits and vegetables, plant-based proteins like beans, nuts, seeds and gluten-free whole grains.”
4. Plan ahead. “Planning is more important when you’re gluten-free. Having quick and easy gluten-free meals on hand is huge in terms of weight management,” Harris says. Choose healthy foods that you can heat up quickly, whether soup, a frozen casserole or a quick egg dish, she advises.
5. Keep carrot sticks, not potato chips, front and center in your kitchen. This is part of planning for success. “We’re all on a ‘see food and eat it’ diet. We see it and we want to eat it,” Harris says. “We’re all visually cued. So if you want to be eating veggies, have them where you can see them. If you want to have pumpkin seeds for a snack or a piece of fruit, have them so they’re easy to see, easy to grab. This absolutely makes a huge difference.”
6. Stick to ingredients you can pronounce. “Choose foods with ingredients you would cook with at home. So avoid artificial flavors, colorings, additives and preservatives,” Stewart says. “Check out the nutrition facts panel. Note the grams of fiber (look for more) and grams of sugar (look for less). Then look at the suggested serving size. Stick with one serving, even if it’s a ‘healthy’ food.”
7. Sustain yourself. “It’s important to balance out macronutrients—carbs, protein, fat—over the course of the day to promote sustained energy and good mood,” Stewart says. Good fats include seeds, olives, olive oil, coconut and avocado, as well as nuts, nut butter and nut oil, if tolerated.
8. Exercise. Exercise is essential. “Exercise goes hand-in-hand with a healthy, balanced diet in order to maintain a healthy weight,” Stewart says.
9. Reduce stress. “I find that a lot of my clients with celiac disease, IBS or gluten sensitivity experience a lot of stress over their diets,” Stewart says. “This can have the negative consequence of increasing cortisol levels, which, in turn, can lead to weight gain. So it’s very important to find ways to keep stress levels under control. Stress reduction—meditation, exercise, soothing music, bubble baths, yoga or anything that works—is very important.”
10. Check your thyroid. If you continue to have problems losing weight, consult a medical specialist to assess your thyroid function. “When I see a patient who says, ‘I’m doing everything right. I’m trying to lose weight but I keep gaining weight,’ I always encourage them to get checked for thyroid disease,” says Harris. “The crossover between celiac disease and thyroid disease is so high. There’s a big genetic overlap.”
Associate editor Eve Becker lives in Chicago.