In this post, I will explain if celiac disease can cause weight gain, and why some people with celiac disease gain weight while others shed some pounds. This post contains affiliate links. Please see my disclosures.
A lot of people start the gluten-free diet with hopes of losing weight. They think of the gluten-free diet as a “fad” diet that will help them magically lose undesired weight. In fact, many celebrities have turned to the gluten-free diet to help them shed unwanted pounds.
However, the truth is that the gluten-free diet isn’t – and shouldn’t be – a weight loss diet; rather, it’s a medically-necessary diet and way of life for the millions of people suffering from celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance, and other gluten disorders.
Gluten Free Helps Manage Variety of Health Conditions
If you have a medically diagnosed gluten disorder, or you eat gluten free because you genuinely feel better when you do, the gluten-free “diet” isn’t a diet at all; it’s a way of life. It doesn’t have anything to do with losing weight and has everything to do with managing your chronic symptoms and improving your health.
In fact, the gluten-free diet is the only prescription for individuals diagnosed with celiac disease and/or gluten sensitivity (also known as gluten intolerance). There are no other treatment options or cures.
The gluten-free diet also is the “prescription” for many other health conditions, and is prescribed as part of the Autoimmune Protocol Diet or AIP diet, which is a version of the more restrictive paleo diet.
A lot of people also go gluten free to manage Hashimoto’s, which is an autoimmune condition where the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid. Others follow the gluten-free diet to manage their dermatitis herpetiformis (also known as celiac rash), or to manage conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), as Dr. Terry Wahls does as part of The Wahls Protocol. By changing her diet, she reversed the majority of her debilitating MS symptoms.
In this article, I’ll give you the skinny on weight loss and weight gain as it relates to the gluten-free diet. Specifically, I’ll discuss:
- Why some people lose weight on the gluten-free diet.
- Why some people gain weight on the gluten-free diet, including a discussion about why so many people with celiac disease go on to gain weight after eliminating gluten.
- How to eat gluten free and maintain a healthy weight.
Why Some People Lose Weight
You might lose quite a bit of weight after you ditch gluten. This could happen for any of the following reasons:
(1) You’re Eating Less
First and most obvious, you may be losing weight on the gluten-free diet because you’re eating less (or at least less of the stuff that causes weight gain).
You may be eating less bread, pasta and pizza now that you’re following the gluten-free diet, and when you eat less – and less of the foods associated with weight gain – you naturally shed the pounds.
I remember being fearful of food when I was first diagnosed with celiac disease. I didn’t know what to eat. I wish someone would have told me what to eat and provide me with the exact recipes to help me figure things out quickly. If you need help coming up with meal ideas, I strongly encourage you to download one of my dedicated gluten-free meal planning packs.
(2) You’re Losing Inflammation Weight
Second, you might be losing what is known as inflammation weight.
Imagine that a harmful bacteria or virus has entered your body. Or think about a time when you injured your finger or knee. Think about how your body’s immune system floods the damaged area with blood, fluid and proteins. Your immune system automatically creates the swelling, redness and warmth needed to protect and repair the damaged tissue.
When you are constantly assaulting your gut with inflammatory foods, particularly ones that your body cannot properly digest (i.e., an unknown food sensitivity), then you are creating a chronic state of inflammation inside your digestive system.
This can lead to things like fluid retention that makes you swell up and, you guessed it, gain or retain weight.
Dr. Mark Hyman says, “If you don’t address inflammation by eliminating hidden food allergens or sensitivities and by eating an anti-inflammatory diet, you will never succeed at effective and permanent weight loss. Hidden sensitivities and allergies to food you eat every day are making you sick and fat.”
He adds that while everyone is different, there are specific foods known to create inflammation more than others… and guess what? Gluten is at the top of the list!
If you have a hidden gluten sensitivity, and you stop eating gluten, the swelling and water retention will subside and you may just find yourself shedding pounds quickly as you shed that unwanted inflammation weight.
The combination of eating less and ridding your body of inflammation can lead to significant weight loss for some people.
(3) You’re Ditching Wheat, an Appetite Stimulant
He says wheat is highly addictive and eating just some of it triggers appetite-stimulating compounds in your brain that demand you eat more of it.
However, when you eliminate wheat, you eliminate the stimulant telling your brain to eat more wheat.
Dr. Davis writes on his website, “Wheat is addictive in the sense that it comes to dominate thoughts and behaviors… if you don’t have any for several hours, you start to get nervous, foggy, tremulous, and start desperately seeking out another “hit” of crackers, bagels, or bread, even if it’s the few stale three-month-old crackers at the bottom of the box.”
He adds, “But the “high” of wheat is not like the high of heroine, morphine, or Oxycontin. This opiate, while it binds to the opiate receptors of the brain, doesn’t make us high. It makes us hungry.”
He says that a protein inside of wheat, gliadin, is capable of causing a person to consume an excess of 440 more calories per day.
That means if you’re losing weight after losing wheat, it might be because you’re no longer controlled by these intense cravings for wheat, and perhaps you’re consuming 440 less calories per day as a result.
Why Some People Gain Weight
After being diagnosed with celiac disease, I thought I was going to lose at least 10 pounds. In fact, one of my friends told me I was “lucky” to have celiac disease because now I would become “skinny.” (Ed. Note: Having celiac disease doesn’t feel “lucky” nor did it make me skinny.)
I was quite disappointed to learn that not only didn’t I lose weight after going gluten free, but I actually started to gain weight instead.
Apparently I’m not alone. Approximately 81 percent of individuals with celiac disease gain weight on the gluten-free diet.
This led me to ponder this question: Why do so many people with celiac disease gain weight?
Gaining weight is good for those individuals with celiac disease who struggle to keep on weight, particularly more serious cases when the patient has suffered from years of devastating celiac symptoms such as chronic diarrhea, failure to thrive, and nutrient-depravity. In these scenarios, weight gain is a welcome result of the gluten-free diet.
However, for the rest of us with celiac disease who came to the “party” at an average (or above average) weight, gaining weight after restricting gluten from our diets is downright devastating.
We feel so deprived of the foods we once ate with gusto, yet as a cruel twist of fate, we’re also stuck packing on the extra poundage. Why is this happening?
(1) You’re Finally Absorbing Nutrients
For the first time in a long time, your body is absorbing nutrients from the foods you’re eating. Remember, the intestinal lining and surrounding villi are severely damaged in individuals with celiac disease. The villi are essential as they are responsible for helping your body properly absorb and distribute nutrients throughout your body.
Without fully functioning villi, an individual with celiac disease becomes malnourished. And when a person is not fully absorbing nutrients from the food they’re eating, their body is telling their brain to eat more.
Therefore, prior to a celiac disease diagnosis, someone with celiac disease may have been eating more than he or she needed in order to overcompensate for feeling nutrient deprived. (Nutrient depravity also can be a result of chronic diarrhea, another common symptom of celiac disease.)
Upon implementation of the gluten-free diet, the food is now suddenly “sticking to one’s bones,” so to speak. However, because a person with celiac disease has been used to overeating for so long to overcompensate for those feeling of nutrient deprivation, they may continue to overeat out of habit, making weight gain inevitable.
(2) Your Brain Isn’t In Sync with Your Mouth
Another reason people with celiac disease gain weight is that they were so used to feeling full and bloated after eating, and this painful bloating is what triggered their brains to stop eating.
This is true for me. I’d stop eating once the bloating commenced. My painful bloating told my brain to stop eating, so I did. I rarely would overeat because I felt so painfully full all of the time.
After removing gluten, I no longer experienced painful bloating after each meal, so I would continue to eat without realizing I was full.
The truth is, I didn’t know what it felt like to feel full without the painful bloating, so I kept eating and eating, and gaining and gaining.
(3) You’re Eating More Packaged Foods
Another reason you may be packing on the pounds is that you’re eating more packaged foods. Packaged foods are often loaded with sugar and refined grains, and they’re deliciously addictive too.
I definitely fell into the junk food trap.
I felt gluten-deprived, and quickly found myself overcompensating for my loss by stocking up on calorically-dense packaged foods at the grocery store along with delicious cakes and cookies at my local gluten-free bakery.
I finally realized that I was eating more cookies, cakes and donuts than I ever ate before, mainly because I was excited that I could eat them again.
I had to remind myself that just because I could eat them doesn’t mean I should eat them, and that the sugar and refined carbohydrates were doing nothing to keep me healthy nor help me maintain a healthy weight.
Every newly diagnosed person with celiac disease should know that just because something is gluten free does not mean it’s sugar-free or calorie-free. Sugar is naturally gluten free, after all.
How to Maintain a Healthy Weight
Just because you follow a gluten-free diet doesn’t automatically make you skinny. You still have to employ commonsense eating if you want to maintain a healthy weight.
Here is a commonsense approach to eating a healthy, gluten-free diet:
(1) Eat Loads of Vegetables
Vegetables are low in calories and high in nutrients … and of course, they’re naturally gluten free. Vegetables are also loaded with fiber, so they make you feel full so you don’t over eat.
Use the gluten-free diet as an opportunity to eat whole, fresh foods and always fill half of your plate with vegetables at each meal.
Vegetables are part of a group of foods known as anti-inflammatory foods. Anti-inflammatory foods include not only vegetables, but also fruits, fatty fish, beans, nuts and seeds, green tea and antioxidant rich spices like turmeric.
While many people in the healthy-living community purport a high-protein diet (paleo or ketogenic), remember that meat is a high-inflammatory food.
That said, I also realize that everyone is different and one person’s medicine is another person’s poison. Some people do well on a meat-heavy diet while most do better on a high-vegetable (some meat) diet.
(2) Have a [Meal] Plan
Planning your meals is essential to eating right and staying on track with your weight. You’ll only shop for ingredients you need, and you’ll leave the junk food at the grocery store, not in your pantry.
If you’re struggling to figure out what to eat, you can download one of my gluten-free meal planning packs.
(3) Avoid the Packaged Foods Trap
It’s absolutely okay to enjoy these foods in moderation. But if you’re packing on pounds, it might be time to examine if you’re eating too much “gluten-free” junk food.
Along the same lines, gluten-free baked goods can contain as much or more sugar than regular baked goods.
Gluten is the “glue” that gives baked goods that desirable chewy and stretchy texture. To compensate for the lack of gluten in gluten-free baked goods, product manufacturers may add more sugar and fillers in order to mimic the taste and texture of gluten, making it easy to overindulge.
(4) Check for Other Food Sensitivities
Remember how gluten can cause inflammation in your body? If you’ve ditched gluten and eat a [mostly] healthy diet, yet you still struggle to lose or maintain a healthy weight, you might have an additional food sensitivity causing you to retain inflammation weight.
The best way to find out if you have a food sensitivity is to take a food sensitivity test. I have found this food sensitivity test to be helpful in providing insights on what foods might be behind one’s chronic inflammation.
You can learn more about food sensitivity testing in this article, and/or see the results of my food sensitivity test in this article.
(5) Practice Self Care
Being healthy is about more than just what you put in your mouth. In fact, being healthy requires you to stress less as well as exercise regularly and get plenty of fresh air and play time.
Chances are after breaking up with gluten, you’re feeling better. Maybe the bloating has subsided and you’re finally absorbing nutrients from the food you’re eating.
Use this newfound energy to implement healthy lifestyle changes that, in combination with a healthy diet, can have a profound positive impact on your overall health. Ready to hit the gym?
(6) Make Sure You’re Eating Zero Gluten
A lot of people say they’re eating mostly gluten free and can’t resist “just a little gluten” here and there, or they’re eating foods with hidden gluten or foods that are highly cross contaminated with gluten.
Related Reading: 10 Surprise Products that Contain Hidden Gluten
The only way to truly see the benefits of a gluten-free diet is by eating zero gluten. None. Nadda. Zip. Zilch. No cheating, ever. You can’t lose that inflammation weight if you’re still sneaking gluten in your diet.
Can You Lose Weight By Going Gluten Free?
Eating gluten free may result in weight loss, however, it’s not a diet; rather, the gluten-free diet is a way of life for millions of people coping with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities worldwide.
If you’ve implemented a gluten-free diet and have found yourself losing weight, way to go. It means you’re probably eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods and have finally rid your body of that excess inflammation weight.
If you’ve gained weight after employing a gluten-free diet, it’s totally normal and reversible. You may need to adjust how much you’re eating (and create new habits), plan your meals more carefully (and load them with lots of anti-inflammatory foods), as well as navigate the gluten-free junk food trap a bit better.
Remember, it’s important to note that losing weight and healthy weight management practices extend well beyond the elimination of one food group; rather it’s about making good food choices, eating plenty of anti-inflammatory foods, eliminating foods causing inflammation, and practicing self-care every day.
I encourage you to contact a health professional specializing in the gluten-free diet to help you transition to a healthy, gluten-free diet that works for you.