Excess weight can be tied to many foods and eating patterns. One that many people may not think about is gluten. Can gluten intolerance cause weight gain? Learn more about how your carbohydrate choices may influence your weight.
Important point: any food that may cause inflammation in the body may also lead to weight gain.
When gluten intolerance or allergy occurs, so does inflammation.
Gluten spins a lot of controversies. First, let’s consider what the headlines have really told us so far.
Then, I will describe the many ways gluten may be making you put on the pounds.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is simply a type of protein in grains: it is in wheat, barley, rye and sometimes oats.
Headlines and research can make some pretty big errors when talking about food and diet.
A recent study about gluten got a lot of press. It stated that gluten-free diets were less healthy than gluten-containing diets [R]. They indicated that gluten-free diets slightly increased risk of heart disease.
What was missing in these headlines? A lot. The study started over 25 years ago. It collected information about what people eat regularly.
The last diet measurements took place in 2010, before the big surge and trends in gluten-free diets.
In fact, gluten-free diets became popular in 2009-2010. I’m sure people did not have time to develop heart disease specific to gluten-free during this short of a time period.
So how is it even responsible to look at this topic effectively [R]?
Perhaps the biggest research error; not enough time passed to assess heart disease risk.
This creates an error by omission; gluten-free products were rare in the marketplace at that time and prior to that.
New agricultural practices for gluten-containing crops weren’t present when the study took place, such as crop desiccation.
This is the practice of spraying a weed killer on grains days before harvest, often wheat, soy, and corn.
Who Ate Gluten-Free Products in the Study?
People seeking out gluten-free products in this study most likely had a disease called Celiac disease.
This is a disease which increases mortality, has a lot of inflammation and more. Celiac disease increases the risk of heart disease dramatically.
It seems obvious that they would find what they did, but they didn’t talk about why in the headlines.
The study also didn’t look at complete gluten exclusion as well. They were looking at levels of gluten intake [R].
Simply cutting back gluten likely won’t help a person with Celiac disease or an intolerance. The damage from inflammation can still occur when eating small amounts.
A study can only be as good as the design, and in this case, the questions didn’t get answered with the poor design.
What happens to people with gluten sensitivity?
Gluten sensitivity is real and up to 30% of the population has it.
Gluten sensitivity creates an abnormal immune response in the body, including abnormal T cell response [R].
The only way to diagnose gluten sensitivity is through the elimination of gluten at this time.
When someone eliminates a sensitivity, it can help with weight loss, sometimes quickly.
Why do they get better? And why do they often get leaner, sometimes very quickly?
1. Gluten Immune System Imbalance
Immune responses to gluten can create danger signals in the body, which shunt nutrients in undesirable ways. One result: the body can become hungrier and bigger.
Clinicians all over the country are slowly learning for themselves that people can become better. They can even heal very serious illness and perhaps lose weight, with a gluten-free diet as part of a balanced diet [R].
Take the work of Dr. Terry Wahls as an example. She had progressive multiple sclerosis. Both in her life and in her research she found great success with this: a gluten-free diet plus copious amounts of vegetables and other healthy habits.
Her progressive, debilitating disease was lifted with gluten-free, healthy diet. Her research is showing similar results.
Another finding in her research: her diet plan is very healthy and well-rounded; she has almost complete recovery [R].
Multiple sclerosis is a disease of imbalanced immunity and diet plays a powerful impact on the course of the disease.
Imbalanced immunity can occur even with subtle gluten intolerance.
2. Gluten Causes Inflammation
In people who are sensitive to gluten, they may experience inflammation throughout the body, even in the nervous system and gut [R]. Inflammation can slow down weight loss or cause weight gain.
3. Gluten and Zonulin
Gluten increases a protein called zonulin in the digestive tract. The higher the zonulin levels, the more likely a person has obesity, bigger waists, and high cholesterol [R].
Gluten is not the only food that changes zonulin in the body, but it is one of many factors [R].
4. Gluten May Cause Leaky Gut
Gluten can increase gut permeability or leaky gut, which drives inflammation in the body [R].
Inflammation due to leaky gut can make it difficult to lose weight. This is because inflammation can stall fat loss.
5. Gluten May Make Your Body Starve for Nutrients
Inflammation can block nutrient use and metabolism in the body. When the body thinks it is short of nutrients, it will crave more food in order to get the nutrients it needs [R]. This is why some patients with Celiac disease become overweight despite being starved for nutrition.
While human studies are early on this topic, animal studies indicate that gluten-free diets may help promote weight loss [R].
6. Gluten Free Foods Can Be More Nutritious
Gluten-free snacks aren’t always healthy.
But out of necessity, people often eat more vegetables and non-processed foods when following a gluten-free diet.
On a gluten-free diet, you won’t be grabbing the breakroom cake or sugar-laden desserts as often.
You also may be less likely to eat these high-calorie, weight-promoting, low-nutrient foods due to the reduced availability of gluten-free options:
- Refined crackers
- Enriched Noodles
- Fried foods
7. Gluten Free Diets May Make You More Mindful
When you have to look out for gluten, you are consciously making a decision each and every time you eat, not just grabbing the nearest food.
This may be a big part of why gluten-free diets promote weight loss for some people.
Each and every bite requires thoughtful consideration.
8. What you crave the most may be the food that needs to go.
So many people struggle with the idea of giving up gluten because it is in their favorite snack at night and they simply can’t live without pasta and bread.
Why does this happen?
When we are sensitive to a food, the body can send out endorphins due to the reaction it causes in the body, making us want the foods even more [R].
Gluten can even make opiate-like chemicals in the body, making us want a lot!
9. Lectins in wheat can make you (and anyone) bloat.
Even if you aren’t sensitive to gluten, you may be sensitive to the lectins in the gluten-containing grains like wheat.
This can cause pain, bloating, and add to the width of your waistline.
- Not all gluten-free diets are the same and not all gluten-full diets are the same.
- Most people are on one side of the fence or other in terms of their beliefs surrounding the hotly debated topic.
- A gluten-free diet is also quite drastically different than people who limit or eat “a little bit of gluten.” Full elimination may be needed to reduce inflammation.
- Gluten-free diets can be as full of junk food as a diet that contains gluten if you aren’t careful.
- It is best to give a gluten-free diet a try for at least 3 weeks to find out if it is going to help you feel better.
- Want more ways to stay lean or lose weight? Need to replace nutrients from a poor diet? Look for great supplement options here:
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body and is shared for educational purposes only. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes to your supplement regimen or lifestyle.
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 20 years, has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. Has researched supplements and plants as medicine throughout her career. Loves helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.