Many people who decide to use the gluten-free diet to lose weight do so because they’re encouraged by how well it seems to work for others. But how can you make sure the diet will work for you?
The truth is, the results you’ve seen some celebrities get may seem magical, but they’re actually not. Instead, those results are the result of careful eating, plenty of exercise—and yes, a diet devoid of wheat and gluten.
However, it’s far from clear which of these factors is the most important, and it may well be that a healthy diet and lots of physical activity turn out to be much more important than eating gluten-free.
Does It Work?
It may even turn out that eating gluten-free doesn’t do anything for your weight at all, beyond just limiting your food choices. There’s certainly a debate about whether ditching wheat and gluten actually does help you lose weight more easily than simply dieting.1
Some nutritionists say that dropping gluten from your diet means that you’ve got less you can eat, and therefore are consuming fewer calories overall… which naturally leads to weight loss.
However, other experts—notably, cardiologist Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly—argue that wheat (and not just the gluten protein in wheat) actually augment your appetite, causing you to eat more.
In an interview, Dr. Davis said that wheat contains appetite-stimulating compounds that encourage your body to produce more insulin, a hormone that can cause you to store fat. However, there’s no independent research to prove his claim.
In his own practice, Dr. Davis said he has seen people drop an average of about 15 to 20 pounds in a month when they simply eliminate wheat.
Yes, your mileage may vary—there’s certainly no guarantee you’ll see those kinds of results, and despite the positive anecdotal evidence, there hasn’t been any published research on this yet to show whether or not it truly works.
The good news is, though, you can try several strategies that may maximize the results of your gluten-free weight loss efforts.
Avoid Processed Gluten-Free Foods
That gluten-free cake mix looks yummy (and it tastes pretty darn close to the real deal, too), but to really lose weight wheat- and gluten-free, you’ll need to steer clear.
A few grain-based gluten-free products like snacks, bread, pizza, cookies, and cakes actually have even higher calories (and potentially can provoke an even more vigorous insulin response) than the wheat-based staples they’re replacing.
In addition, lots of people seem to think that the term “gluten-free” on the label actually means “calorie-free.” Remember this: Eating more calories just because they’re found in gluten-free foods won’t help you lose weight. Quite the opposite.
Count the calories in gluten-free foods, because they count too, just like calories in non-gluten-free foods.
Watch Your Total Calories
Many people do find they drop weight seemingly effortlessly when they go gluten-free, but only up to a point. That point, says Dr. Davis, seems to come at about 15 to 20 pounds worth of weight loss for many people.
The truth is, going gluten-free tends to decrease your cravings and appetite overall (at least after your initial cravings for wheat-based treats have subsided), and a decreased appetite leads to fewer calories consumed.
To keep the weight-loss ball rolling, you’ll probably need to start counting calories and try to stay within recommendations for your body.
Set Your Calorie GoaL
Low-Carb, Grain-Free, or Paleo
This is controversial, but Dr. Davis and other advocates of a wheat and gluten-free diet for weight loss believe a low-carb diet is best for weight loss. It isn’t just the wheat-based carbs that stimulate insulin production and make you hungry, the theory goes—it’s all the carbs.
Dr. Davis advocates limiting high-carb foods like legumes and fruits and entirely eliminating gluten-free grain-based foods like cereals and bread, most snack foods (like gluten-free potato chips), and foods containing high-fructose corn syrup.
It’s possible to mind your nutritional needs and follow a low-carb, gluten-free diet, if you’re careful. Make your carbs count.
Keep in mind that the jury’s still out on the Paleo diet—some experts warn that you’ll be passing up valuable vitamins, fiber, and other nutrients if you skimp on foods like fruit, beans, and whole grain rice.
Be Truly Gluten-Free
Lots of people think they’re gluten-free when they’re really not (gluten hides in many places you wouldn’t suspect), and in some people, anecdotal evidence indicates even small amounts of wheat and gluten appear to curb weight loss when they’re consumed on a regular basis.
There’s no research on this, but if you’re serious about trying to lose weight gluten-free, you may want to consider trying to eliminate all wheat and gluten.2 Otherwise, Dr. Davis warns, you may not completely stop the insulin response that keeps you from dropping the pounds
Don’t Forget to Exercise
This could be the most important tip of all.
Cutting the wheat and the gluten may help you lose weight more easily, but if you really want to accelerate your efforts, you’re going to need to break a sweat.
Exercise can help you build more muscle and lose fat, and muscle burns more calories, helping you lose even more fat.3 Don’t view your new gluten-free diet as a replacement for hitting the gym—make time for some healthy physical activities.
Rarely a day goes by without new claims that the gluten-free diet can help you lose weight. Celebrities ranging from Oprah Winfrey to Miley Cyrus (and Elisabeth Hasselbeck, who is diagnosed with celiac disease) maintain that they’ve lost weight gluten-free. Based on those testimonials, plenty of people have adopted a gluten-free diet as a way to shed pounds.
But does it really work? If you ask the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association), the answer is a firm “no.” According to the group, there’s no proven use for the gluten-free diet beyond celiac disease, and “there is nothing special about a gluten-free diet that can help a person lose weight.”1
Despite that firm “no,” there actually haven’t been any studies considering whether people who eat gluten-free lose weight more readily than people who follow a different diet, although an academy representative speculated that people may lose weight when they eat gluten-free because they can’t find as much food they can eat.
However, there is, in fact, some evidence that eating gluten-free can help you lose weight, whether or not you actually have celiac disease. If you do have celiac, several medical studies note that people who are overweight when they’re diagnosed tend to lose weight when they go gluten-free.2
But if you don’t have the condition, gluten-free weight loss may still work for you. Cardiologist Dr. William Davis, the author of Wheat Belly, tells Verywell he sees the same weight loss sparked by the gluten-free diet in people who don’t have celiac disease.
He says his patients lose weight routinely—usually around 15 to 20 pounds in the first month—when they drop wheat from their diets. Is there something in wheat or gluten foods that causes people to overeat? There’s no evidence one way or the other in medical studies
However, Dr. Davis says it’s true based on his own unpublished research and experiences within his medical practice: people consume more calories overall when they eat wheat and tend to lose weight—sometimes lots of weight—when they drop wheat from their diets.
Gluten-Free Diet in Celiac Weight Loss
Studies have shown pretty conclusively that the gluten-free diet helps obese people who have celiac disease lose weight. In one study, researchers followed 191 people, of whom about 32% were underweight, 38% were normal weight, 16% were overweight and 14% were obese at the time of diagnosis.
Out of the entire group, 91 patients gained weight after starting the gluten-free diet—an average of about 16.5 pounds. But another 25 patients lost an average of 27.5 pounds and the weight loss was most pronounced in the patients who were obese at diagnosis.
Another study that looked at 369 people found weight tends to normalize on a gluten-free diet—in other words, if you’re overweight, you’ll tend to lose weight, while if you’re underweight, you’ll tend to gain some weight once you go gluten-free.3
And a third study measured the number of calories consumed by people with celiac disease who followed the gluten-free diet compared to celiacs who cheated on the gluten-free diet and found those who cheated consumed an average of 418 calories more each day than those who ate gluten-free. (That’s about the equivalent of one extra Panera Bread cinnamon crunch bagel on a daily basis.)
What If You Don’t Have Celiac?
Studies showing the gluten-free diet can lead to weight loss in some people with celiac disease don’t apply to people without the condition, of course.
However, Dr. Davis believes that eliminating wheat from your diet will lead to weight loss even if you don’t have celiac disease—he says he’s seen it happen in several thousand patients whom he has treated for cardiovascular disease.
He claims that many protein and starch compounds in wheat—not just the gluten protein—are harmful, and he routinely counsels his patients to drop all wheat products from their diets (he emphasizes wheat—the most ubiquitous gluten grain—far more than barley or rye, which appear in relatively few food products)
Wheat Stimulates Insulin Production
According to Dr. Davis, eating wheat stimulates your body to produce very high levels of insulin, the hormone that moves sugar from your bloodstream into your body’s cells. High insulin levels cause your body to accumulate fat around your abdomen.
When your body has lots of insulin circulating, it also can lead to feelings of low blood sugar, which makes you hungry. You grab a quick snack (frequently easily-digested carbohydrates like some crackers or a muffin) and the cycle starts all over again.
Dr. Davis believes that taking the wheat out of your diet can calm the cycle involving high insulin and low blood sugar, and almost always leads to the person consuming fewer calories, which in turn results in weight loss.
“Typically, you’ll see a 15-to-20-pound weight loss within a month,” said Dr. Davis in an interview. “The largest drop is in the first month. Some of that is edema [i.e., water retention]. It seems to be a selective loss in the abdomen, and there’s a marked reduction in waist size.”
Dr. Davis says that patients who lose the most weight are the ones who do not replace gluten-containing foods with lots of gluten-free food products, which tend to be high in calories and low in nutrients.
Instead, the people who lose the most weight drop most or all grain-based products (even gluten-free-labeled products) plus sugar-based processed foods, he says. In his experience, those people also do the best from a heart disease risk point of view (which is Dr. Davis’ main focus).
An interesting medical study backs up Dr. Davis’ point of view. The study, published in 2013 in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, found that mice following a high-fat gluten-free diet gained less weight and developed less fatty tissue than mice eating a glutenous high-fat diet.4
The researchers also identified specific biochemical reasons for their results.
“Our data support the beneficial effects of gluten-free diets in reducing adiposity gain, inflammation, and insulin resistance,” the authors concluded. “The data suggests that diet gluten exclusion should be tested as a new dietary approach to prevent the development of obesity and metabolic disorders.”
Wheat’s Role in Weight
There’s more evidence for wheat’s role in weight gain from Denise Minger, a raw food/Paleo diet blogger, and author. Minger, who is well-known in low-carb diet circles for her analysis of the China Study, took a look at what the data show about body mass index and wheat intake.
If you’re not familiar with the China Study, written by T. Colin Campbell, it’s a book based on Campbell’s long-term epidemiological study of diet and disease in people who live in 65 rural counties in China. But Minger didn’t use the book itself—instead, she used the raw study data, much of which is available online, to crunch numbers specifically on wheat and body size.
In Minger’s very detailed analysis of the data, she found that wheat consumption is the strongest positive predictor of body weight, and is strongly correlated with body mass index. Translation: the more wheat you eat, the heavier you are, regardless of how tall you are.
To see if her conclusion held up, Minger also ran the numbers through a bunch of different statistical equations with different variables. Nothing changed the bottom line, which was that eating wheat was correlated with having a higher body mass index.
Of course, Minger’s research doesn’t prove anything—she’s simply showing statistical associations between wheat and weight, not showing definitively that wheat causes weight gain.
So can the gluten-free diet help you lose weight? Here’s what we definitely know:
- If you have celiac disease and you’re overweight or obese at diagnosis, you’ll probably lose some weight once you go gluten-free.5
- If you don’t have celiac disease, it’s possible that going gluten-free may help you lose some excess weight, although there’s no published medical study showing whether it works or not.1 (Dr. Davis’ research and practice experiences have not been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.)
- You probably won’t lose much weight on the gluten-free diet—or potentially any at all—if you load up on gluten-free replacement products such as bread, cookies, cakes, and cereals, since those products tend to be just as high (or in some cases, even higher) in calories than the wheat-based products they’re replacing.
According to Dr. Davis, you’ll get the best weight-loss results if you also cut back significantly on all starchy carbohydrates. Although in his view, wheat is the worst offender when it comes to insulin levels, all starchy carbs—i.e., gluten-free grains and grain products, plus potatoes, legumes, and sugar—can raise your insulin levels, making you more inclined to overeat, he says.
Therefore, rather than shopping mainly in the gluten-free products aisle at the supermarket, you should avoid those products and instead base your diet on fresh vegetables, nuts, lean meats, eggs, and cheese, with some limited fruit and whole gluten-free grains thrown in, Dr. Davis says.