The Gluten-Free Diet – A Recipe for Unhealthy Weight Gain?

The vast majority of people who go on the gluten-free diet as it’s conventionally prescribed gain weight – and nearly one-third who are normal weight become overweight. So says a study in the October 2006 American Journal of Gastroenterology.

Gaining weight is desirable for people who are underweight when they are diagnosed with celiac disease. However, contrary to popular opinion, there are few underweight celiacs: only 4 percent of 371 patients in this study were underweight when diagnosed.

It’s much more common to be normal weight or overweight at the time of diagnosis.
Of the patients diagnosed with celiac disease over a ten-year period in a clinic in northern Ireland, 39 percent were overweight and 57 percent were normal weight.

The study also showed weight gain occurred across the board. After strictly eliminating gluten from the diet for two years, 81 percent of the patients gained weight, including 82 percent of the initially overweight patients. The proportion of patients in the overweight category jumped from 26 percent to 51 percent. Overweight, of course, increases the risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and many other diseases.

Study reference: Dickey W, Kearney N. Overweight in celiac disease: prevalence, clinical characteristics, and effect of a gluten-free diet. American Journal of Gastroenterology, 2006; 101:2365-9.

Melissa’s Comments:

Welcome to Nutrition News & Notes!

Are the results of this study surprising to you? This study is more than a year old but its results are important enough – and haven’t been distributed enough to the gluten-free community – that I wanted to make it my first post. Its results confirm what I observed before and after writing Going Against the Grain.

After I finished coauthoring Syndrome X: The Complete Nutritional Program to Prevent and Reverse Insulin Resistance, I started research for Going Against the Grain and went to the Ninth International Symposium on Celiac Disease in Hunt Valley, Maryland, in 2000. I was told that most of the attendees were people with celiac disease who were on a gluten-free diet. Having not worked too much with the celiac community before then, I thought the gluten-free eaters would have healthy diets because they wouldn’t be eating (gluten-containing) refined white-flour products. I figured they would be eating mostly animal protein and vegetables and would be trim and free of most of the blood-sugar- and insulin-related health problems I saw with my clients who had insulin resistance, Syndrome X (metabolic syndrome), prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.

When I first arrived in the convention center lecture hall, I looked around the room and was stunned: A fairly sizable portion of the audience members – perhaps as many as half of the people in the audience – had extra weight around their waistlines, what I call “the Syndrome X profile.” During the breaks in between lectures, I found out why: gluten-free baked goods were served for food during the breaks. The breads, cookies and other foods were made with refined gluten-free flours (white rice flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, arrowroot and the like), refined sweeteners (mainly white sugar, but sometimes corn syrup or other sweeteners) and refined oils (soybean oil, corn oil, and others, and sometimes partially hydrogenated oil). Many attendees ate the baked goods freely and I heard some say they purchased them regularly. Although the foods were gluten free, the ingredients in them were a prescription for insulin resistance, weight gain and all the diseases (such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease) that come with those conditions.

I was shocked that the medical professionals in charge of the conference wouldn’t realize that gluten-free food products like those that were served would cause celiacs to gain unhealthy weight and develop new (or worsening) blood-sugar- and insulin-related health problems. But celiac disease was the only focus of the conference.

What I saw at that celiac conference strongly influenced my Going Against the Grain book. In my book, I explained in depth the health conditions brought on by eating refined grains. The trouble with refined grains applies whether the grains are gluten free or not. A gluten-free diet with many refined gluten-free foods is a recipe for weight gain and blood sugar and insulin-related health problems. It’s like a gluten-free version of the Standard American Diet – commonly abbreviated SAD – which sets a cascade of events to occur in the body that sets all of us up for Standard American Diseases.

Too many people learn parts of nutrition that help their health and miss other important parts. As a result, they unknowingly make mistakes with their diet and end up developing one health concern in place of another. I’ve seen that happen far too often. Those are big reasons why I developed this website.

The authors of the study cited above said the gluten-free diet as it’s conventionally prescribed needs to be modified to prevent additional weight gain and guard against the health consequences of overweight and obesity. This is something I have known for quite some time and feel strongly about spreading the word.

If you find yourself heavier or developing new health problems after starting a gluten-free diet, be sure to cut refined gluten-free foods out of your diet! If you need more guidance, consider a personal nutrition consultation over the phone with me so you can follow a gluten-free diet that’s best for you.

If you’d like ongoing practical support on how to eat gluten free or grain free for optimal health, join my online Going Against the Grain Group, which will cover names of products, recipes, meal ideas, in-depth articles, nutrition lessons, answers to nutrition questions, and more. You can become a member of the Group anytime. However, if you don’t want to miss a single post, join before March 10th, the official starting date for the Going Against the Grain Group.

© Copyright 2008 Melissa Diane Smith

One Comment to “The Gluten-Free Diet – A Recipe for Unhealthy Weight Gain?”

  • Just to clarify, I’m not saying the gluten-free diet always leads to weight gain. It all depends on what kind of gluten-free diet you eat. The typical dietitian who advises people on the gluten-free diet tells them to replace refined white flour products with refined gluten-free grain products (and sometimes with whole-grain, gluten-free products). The advice is that grains are the base of the diet, just like the food pyramid guidelines. That is the wrong advice. Following that eating strategy will lead to weight gain. When you replace refined white flour products with vegetables, that makes a completely different gluten-free diet that doesn’t lead to weight gain.

    Those of us eating gluten free shouldn’t try to emulate the typical American diet with all its high-carb, refined grain bread products, pastas and so forth. Doing that gets us into trouble — the exact same health troubles that are huge and growing problems for the rest of our country and the world.

    Comment by: Melissa   on March 1, 2008

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