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A lot of people enter into the gluten-free diet with hopes of losing weight. I think it’s because so many people are hoping for a magic-bullet weight-loss solution, and “gluten-free” is that magical buzzword today. However, the truth is that the gluten-free diet isn’t a weight loss diet for most of us on it; rather, it’s a way of life.
In fact, if you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, eating gluten-free has nothing to do losing weight and everything to do with managing your health. The gluten-free diet is the only prescription for individuals diagnosed with celiac disease and or a gluten sensitivity (also known as a gluten intolerance).
The gluten-free diet also is the “prescription” for many other autoimmune diets, including the Autoimmune Protocol Diet or AIP diet, which is a version of the more restrictive paleo diet. A lot of people go gluten-free to help them manage their Hashimoto’s disease (an autoimmune condition where the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid) or their multiple sclerosis (MS), as Dr. Terry Wahls does as part of The Wahls Protocol. By changing her diet, she reversed many of her debilitating MS symptoms.
Unfortunately, too many people looking for a get-skinny-quick-diet jump into the world of gluten-free eating without realizing this “diet” is not really a weight loss “diet” at all; rather it’s a way of living for millions of people.
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 a gluten-free diet.
- Why some people gain weight on a gluten-free diet, including a discussion about why so many people with celiac disease GAIN weight after eliminating gluten.
- How to eat gluten-free and maintain a healthy weight.
Why Some People Lose Weight on a Gluten-Free Diet
You might lose quite a bit of weight after you ditch gluten. This happens for 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).
For example, you may be eating less bread, pasta and pizza now that you’re following the gluten-free diet, and, on top of that, you might find yourself eating more vegetables, eggs, fruits and nuts instead.
Indeed, when you eat less – and less of the foods associated with weight gain – you’ll naturally shed the pounds.
(2) You’re Losing Inflammation Weight
Second, you might be losing weight because you’re losing the inflammation. If a harmful bacteria or virus enters your body, or if you injure your finger or knee, your body’s immune system will flood the damaged area with blood, fluid and proteins. These resources create the swelling, redness and warmth needed to protect and repair the damaged tissue.
However, if you’re constantly assaulting your gut with inflammatory foods, particularly ones that your body cannot properly digest (i.e., an unknown food intolerance or sensitivity), then you are creating a chronic state of inflammation inside your digestive system. This can lead to things like fluid retention. Yep, inflammation is causing you to retain water, swelling you up and making you fat!
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’ll find yourself losing 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, Which is an Appetite Stimulant
Finally, your weight might go down after losing the gluten because, as Dr. William Davis says, wheat a “potent 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 wheat.
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. Wheat is addictive in the sense that, 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. Wheat is addictive in the sense that there is a distinct withdrawal syndrome characterized by overwhelming fatigue, mental “fog,” inability to exercise, even depression that lasts several days, occasionally several weeks. Wheat is addictive in the sense that the withdrawal process can be provoked by administering an opiate-blocking drug such as naloxone or naltrexone.
“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.”
Dr. Davis goes on to say that a protein inside of wheat, gliadin, is capable of causing a person to consume an excess of 440 more calories per day. Gulp!
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 you’re consuming 440 less calories per day as result.
Why Others Gain Weight on a Gluten-Free Diet
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.” I can’t make this up – no doubt.
However, 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.
So this led me to ponder this question: Why do so many people with celiac disease gain weight?
In fact, I learned that approximately 81 percent of individuals with celiac disease gain weight on a gluten-free diet.
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 chronic diarrhea and extreme malnourishment. 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 a normal weight, gaining weight after losing gluten is devastating. I gained weight and it really messed with my brain. I felt so deprived, yet I was packing on extra poundage. Why?
As I understand it, people with celiac disease gain weight after going gluten-free for the following three reasons:
(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 when it comes to properly absorbing and distributing nutrients throughout your body. Without fully functioning villi, an individual with celiac disease becomes malnourished.
When you’re not fully absorbing nutrients from the food you eat, your body is signaling to your brain to eat more. Therefore, someone with celiac disease may have been eating more than needed 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 “sticking to your bones,” so to speak and you can properly absorb the nutrients from the food you’re eating. However, because you’ve been used to overeating for so long to overcompensate for those feeling of nutrient deprivation, you may continue to overeat out of habit.
(2) Your Brain Isn’t In Tune with Your Mouth
Another reason people with celiac disease gain weight is that they were so used to feeling full and bloated after eating. This triggered their brains to stop eating.
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. I didn’t know what feeling full felt like, 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, not to mention deliciously addictive.
I definitely fell into the junk food trap. I felt food deprived so I 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 When You Eat Gluten-Free
Just because you follow a gluten-free diet doesn’t automatically make you skinny. You still have to employ common sense eating if you want to shed a few pounds or maintain a healthy weight.
Here is a commonsense approach to eating a healthy AND 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. 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 still classified as a highly 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) Avoid the Packaged Foods Trap: Gluten-free cookies are still cookies, and gluten-free donuts are still donuts. They still contain sugar, refined grains and loads of calories. It’s absolutely okay to enjoy these foods in moderation, of course. 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 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 add more sugar and fillers in order to minimc the taste and texture of gluten. Yikes.
Additionally, all that extra sugar in gluten-free goods have made gluten-free foods rather tasty. This makes it oh-so-easy to overindulge.
(3) Check for Other Food Sensitivities: Remember how I talked about gluten causing 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 from Everlywell to be helpful in providing insights on what foods might be behind your 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.
(4) Practice Good 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 losing the 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 some 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?
(5) 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. (Read: 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. (Read: Don’t Cheat On Your Gluten-Free Diet)
Can You Lose Weight By Going Gluten-Free?
Eating gluten-free may result in weight loss for you, however, it is NOT a diet, it’s a way of life for millions of people coping with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities.
If you’ve implemented a gluten-free diet and have found yourself losing weight, way to go. It means you are likely eating more whole foods and have finally rid your body of that excess 10-20 pounds of 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) 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 a little self-care.
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.