Is Gluten Free Making You Fat?

Some people gain weight after switching to a gluten free diet. Here’s why.

The sale of GF (gluten-free) foods grossed more than $2.6 billion by the end of 2010, and they’re expected to exceed over $5 billion by 2015.

While on the surface the increasing availability of GF chicken nuggets and GF hot pockets may sound like good news (Finally! There’s gluten free chocolate cake and pizza for us deprived health-conscious consumers!), many of these GF foods are anything but healthy.

As my ND colleague and gluten enteropathy guru Dr. Lisa Shaver explains it, when people decide to go gluten free, many of them don’t necessarily start eating healthier. In fact, they sometimes eat worse.

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The “Transition” GF Diet

Instead of ditching wheat bread, many newbie GFers eat gluten-free bread. Instead of avoiding cheez-its, they buy gluten free crackers. Instead of steering clear of refined carbohydrates, they stock up on gluten free cakes and cookies. This is what Dr. Shaver refers to as the “transition diet” – it isn’t really a step forward so much as it is a step sideways.

At first this may seem like a benign move, possibly even positive, since, after all, these people are now at least avoiding a known neurotoxin that triggers autoimmune reactions. Furthermore, for those with celiac disease, avoiding gluten-containing foods can even lower the risk of developing lymphoma and osteoporosis. In fact, when somebody with celiac disease goes GF, they reduce their overall mortality risk by 400%.

So… why do some of these people end up gaining weight after going GF?

There are a few reasons.

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Gluten is a Protein

For one, let’s think about gluten. It’s a protein found in several grains, such as wheat, rye, spelt, and barley. Although gluten isn’t as rich in protein as say chicken or fish, gluten-containing foods are nevertheless higher in protein content than their GF imitators.

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Starches and Carbohydrates

Gluten is also a baker’s dream when it comes to consistency – without it, breads and cakes fall apart like sand and lose their fluffy texture. To mimic that sticky consistency, GF manufacturers heavily rely on various starches like potato starch, rice flour, tapioca, sorghum, xantham gum, and corn.

What all starches have in common is that they quickly turn to sugar after you eat them. In other words, starches spike your blood sugar similar to the way that candy does. And as most of us know, sugar causes an insulin rush, and therefore makes you fat.

So really, it isn’t that a GF diet makes you fat. It’s that a starch-heavy diet filled with simple carbohydrates does.*

And lo and behold, those who switch to a “transition” GF diet tend to eat more carbohydrates on average than when they ate the Standard American Diet (accurately abbreviated “SAD”).

My husband and I have a fun habit of finding the most unhealthy-looking, packaged sugary thing we can find in the grocery store and mockingly try to convince the other, “But look! It’s gluten free! So it’s gotta be good for you!”

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Low in Fiber

What’s more is that these gluten-free renditions are significantly lower in fiber than their grain-based equivalents. (There’s way more fiber in a whole-wheat bagel than there is in a GF one made from potato starch and tapioca.)

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Not Fortified

And whereas many conventional breads and pastas are fortified with nutrients like iron and folate, the GF industry has been slow to integrate these practices. This means that a bowl of regular pasta contains more vitamins than a bowl of rice noodles.

This isn’t the most significant detail, however, since you really shouldn’t be relying on pasta to give you the nutrients you should really be getting from vegetables. Dark, green leafy vegetables like chard, kale, spinach, and collards pack a punch when it comes to folic acid and iron.

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So… What To Eat?

My aim writing this article is not to send you running to the bagel shop and going back to gluten as a dietary staple, but rather to help you get the most of your gluten free diet so that you can feel and look healthy.

Some quick tips:

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1. Eat Real Food, Not That Processed Junk.

Processed, packaged treats like GF brownies and GF pizza are just that: treats. Don’t eat them at every meal. Don’t eat them daily. Save them for special occasions. (And by the way, even if you’re eating gluten-filled brownies and pizza, the same advice applies to you.)

This strategy will also help save you some serious money: GF packaged foods are on average 162% more expensive than conventional packaged foods.

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2. Real Labels.

Next time you’re at the grocery store and reach for the GF cereal, flip it over and read the ingredients list. Is it heavy in corn and various starches? Make informed decisions.

Some foods, like chia seeds and yogurt, are now labeled as Gluten Free – even though these foods have never contained gluten. This is just marketing technique, since GF is “in.” So you don’t need to assume that all “gluten free” marked items are necessarily junk. Read the labels.

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3. Focus on Vegetables, Fruits, Animal Proteins, and Whole Grains

Switching to a gluten free diet means giving up breads, pastas, and pastries. Although you can indulge on special occasions (GF carrot cake is my personal favorite), transitioning to a new way of eating entails learning new recipes and planning your meals at first.

I typically recommend that people try to make at least half of their plate at every meal be vegetables (potatoes and corn don’t count – those are starches). Vegetables are a fantastic source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Ethically raised, hormone free animal products will provide you with all the protein you need, will help prevent anemia, and will provide your body with the important B vitamins needed to drive just about every biochemical pathway in the body. Nuts and seeds are great options too.

Whole grains like amaranth, black rice, teff, quinoa, GF rolled oats, GF steel cut oats, and buckwheat (yes, it’s called buckwheat, but it’s actually wheat free) are all fantastic alternatives to pasta, rice pilaf, and cous cous, and provide your digestive tract with way more fiber.

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Wishing you health, happiness, and the occasional GF cupcake,

Dr. Z

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* Side Note: if you’re still suck in 1993 and think that eating olive oil and whole fat yogurt makes you fat, and that pasta and granola bars are good for you, check out some of our earlier blog posts and Facebook posts.

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References and Gratitude:

Lisa Shaver, ND. Updates in Celiac Disease and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. Updates in Naturopathic Gastroenterology. Presented at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine, Portland, Ore. March 2014.

Steven Sandberg-Lewis, ND. Celiac Disease. Gastroenterology Course. Presented at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine, Portland, Ore. Feb 2012.

“Gluten Free Diet.” UpToDate Online. Accessed 13 April 2014.

Image courtesy of noomhh / freedigitalphotos.net

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