I’ve answered direct questions here at Gluten Intolerance School, such as “What is gluten?” I’ve tried to elucidate complicated topics, such as celiac disease symptoms. But one different and confusing topic that arises a little more than I’d like to see is the issue of gluten intolerance and weight gain. This topic has a few different angles to it.
Navigate Gluten Intolerance and Weight Gain:
- A Gluten-Free Diet Is Not A Hot Weight Loss Solution
- When Gluten Intolerance Causes Weight Gain
- Gluten Intolerance Symptoms
- Why Weight Gain and Not Weight Loss?
- Gluten-Free Diet and Weight Gain
- Properly Diagnosing Your Gluten Sensitivity
- Treating Gluten Intolerance and Weight Gain
A Gluten-Free Diet Is Not A Hot Weight Loss Solution
The gluten-free diet should not be a fad diet and it is not a new means to lose weight for any random person. It is a necessary lifestyle change and medical prescription for people with a specific and serious autoimmune disease. While I question and doubt the excess presence of gluten in our diets, particularly the kind of gluten our agricultural industry has evolved to produce in recent decades, you should not arbitrarily look at a gluten-free diet as a new diet to help you lose weight.
No matter what diet you decide to adapt for weight-loss, remember that ultimately it comes down to a combination of your body’s thermodynamics — you have to burn more calories than you consume — and avoiding high volumes of refined grains and added sugars, which cause your liver to convert glucose to fat.
Despite the number of authors and websites making a whole lot of money promoting the gluten-free diet as a magical solution to your weight problems, it’s more often artificial hype leveraged for profit than it is scientific reality.
When Gluten Intolerance Causes Weight Gain
With my disclaimer regarding how the gluten-free diet is not a weight-loss solution out of the way, there are real and seemingly counter-intuitive situations where weight gain and gluten intolerance appear to be related.
While it is less common, some people who suffer from unexplained weight gain, or who are overweight and having difficulty losing weight, may be suffering from some kind of gluten sensitivity. Gluten intolerance and weight gain can be closely related because a gluten sensitivity or intolerance has a direct impact on the digestive system. Although weight loss is usually the first thing that doctors will look for when diagnosing gluten intolerance, the opposite can also be an indicator.
Let’s look at the gluten intolerance and weight gain connection. With the right information, you may be able to shed those unwanted pounds and treat an undiagnosed illness at the same time.
Gluten Intolerance Symptoms
While other parts of my site go into far greater detail (see my sidebar), a non-celiac gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are similar phenomenons with overlapping symptoms. Beyond gastrointestinal distress, most of the time these diseases present themselves as malnutrition or malabsorption symptoms like anemia and osteoporosis. In advanced cases, patients who cannot absorb enough nutrients experience severe weight loss. For more on gluten intolerance symptoms, please consider these three articles on my site:
As you should see from these various lessons, the association between gluten intolerance and weight gain is somewhat counter-intuitive to what most commonly occurs.
Why Weight Gain and Not Weight Loss?
Since most gluten intolerance patients experience weight loss, why and how would weight gain indicate gluten sensitivity or celiac disease? The answer lies in the body’s will to survive.
When the antibodies triggered by consuming gluten damage the villi along the lining of the small intestine, the amount of nutrients these villi can absorb diminishes. For some (in fact, for most), this is likely to lead to some degree of weight loss. For others, however, this creates an insatiable appetite. The body calls for more food so it can try to obtain the nutrients needed to survive and thrive. Villi damage can also impede fatty acid absorption, which in turn can cause an increase in appetite and reduce your body’s ability to break down fats.
While have been frowned upon fats in the past, today we know fatty acids play a key role in satiety. This means they help you feel more full and satisfied with less food. If your body isn’t absorbing the fats you consume, you may feel less satisfied with your meals and develop cravings sooner after you last ate.
Unfortunately, celiac disease does its earliest and most severe damage to the duodenum, or proximal small intestine, the part of your small intestine that is best equipped to absorb fat and fat-soluble vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D and calcium.
Gluten-Free Diet and Weight Gain
Another way weight gain and gluten intolerance can be connected is through the change to a gluten-free diet. While a gluten-free diet is absolutely necessary and much healthier for anyone who can’t properly digest gluten, this type of diet is different and will require some additional thought and consideration. Gluten-containing foods, at least those made with whole grains, generally contain more protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals than their gluten-free counterparts.
In many cases, this isn’t because the grains themselves have more nutrients, but because in most developed nations the government mandates wheat products to be enriched with certain nutrients, particularly B vitamins. In most countries, the same mandates don’t exist for other grains, so manufacturers don’t have the systems in place to enrich non-gluten grains the same way they enrich gluten-containing grains.
This is one reason you need to aim for more diverse and nutritious foods when you go gluten-free. You can’t just take your existing diet and replace the grain-based products with new gluten-free grain-based foods. It’s a trap many fall into when they embark on their new gluten-free lives.
When eliminating gluten-containing foods it is important to substitute them with gluten-free foods that will provide the same nutrients as the foods you are replacing. Unfortunately most conventional, store-bought gluten-free substitutes for those carbohydrate foods we crave are lacking in fiber and other nutrients. Too many of these foods can lead to weight gain and even chronic inflammation.
Even if you make them at home you’ll notice you need to replace wheat flour with a blend of other flours and starches. Some of these blends are lacking in fiber, protein and nutrients. Eating too many of these foods can lead to weight gain. But if you do a little research to find a healthier blend of flours using gluten-free whole grains, for example brown rice flour instead of white rice flour, and you don’t overindulge in these foods, you shouldn’t have a problem with a gluten-free diet and weight gain. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new flours like quinoa, buckwheat, bean and nut flours as these flours offer more nutritional value.
Perhaps most importantly, when you go gluten-free, take the opportunity to incorporate more diverse fresh vegetables and to rely less on grain-based foods for your meals.
Properly Diagnosing Your Gluten Sensitivity
If you have struggled to lose weight to no avail, yet you feel like you are lacking nutrients or you have constant food cravings, it may be worthwhile talking with your doctor about celiac disease or a non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Depending on your doctor, you may need to be persistent, because weight loss rather than weight gain is more commonly associated with these conditions. However, a blood panel, which includes an anti-gliadin antibody blood test, can help indicate if you have a sensitivity to this complex protein composite. An intestinal biopsy can then provide a conclusive diagnosis and should be done if the blood test is positive. You can learn more about this process in my lesson, Gluten Intolerance Test.
Treating Gluten Intolerance and Weight Gain
If you suspect that gluten could be playing a part in your struggle with weight, it is worth taking the time to get tested and to discuss the matter with your doctor. It’s worth checking into when you consider the compounded problems gluten intolerance and weight gain can have on your long-term health and well-being. Both a non-celiac gluten sensitivity and celiac disease can cause systemic inflammation and malnutrition; combine these consequences with the many long-term consequences of obesity and you have a dangerous concoction.
Fortunately, there is hope.
If you are diagnosed with gluten intolerance you can treat the condition by strictly avoiding gluten and stocking more fresh vegetables along with a healthy gluten-free pantry so you can easily cook gluten-free at home.
As your intestines heal you will experience reduced food cravings and over time, you may notice a substantial reduction in weight. Living a gluten-free life is not exactly convenient, but more ready-made products are being introduced all the time. With some planning and a bit of perseverance, living gluten-free is not only possible, but fun and satisfying.