Weight Gain After Going Gluten-Free

First, I just want to put this out there, "weight gain" and the other diet culture lingo that will be discussed in this article could possibly be triggering to anyone that has struggled with disordered eating or has had body image issues. Please, if you are uncomfortable with this vocabulary, refrain from continuing to read this article. Your mental health is just as important, if not more so, than your physical health.

One of the most common things people would tell me once they heard about my Celiacs diagnosis and my new gluten-free diet would be, "be careful you are going to gain a lot of weight". Which, honestly, I was very confused about. Why would eliminating an entire category of my diet cause me to gain weight? Wouldn't you think one would lose weight on a restricted diet? Come to find out, studies have shown that 81% of people with Celiac disease gain weight once on a gluten-free diet (1). What could possibly be the reasoning for this? Well there are more than a few factors, but here are some of the most common:

1. You are actually starting to absorb nutrients.

As a Celiac, before going gluten-free, your intestinal lining and villi were severely damaged by gluten on a daily basis. The villi are what allow you to properly absorb and distribute nutrients throughout your body. With damaged villi, a person with Celiac disease can essentially become malnourished and your body signals your brain to eat more. So, a Celiac may have been eating more than actually needed to overcompensate for the feeling of being nutrient deprived.

Once on a gluten-free diet, your villi are healing and you are beginning to properly absorb the nutrients from the food you’re eating. But, because you have become used to overeating to overcompensate for the feeling of nutrient deprivation, you may continue to overeat just out of habit.

2. Your brain and your stomach are not in line.

You are so used to feeling sick, bloated and in pain after eating, that once you go gluten-free and no longer have these feelings, you just don't know when to stop. In the past, you started feeling ill after eating and just could not eat anymore, this was not because you were full or received enough nutrients, it was because you were hurting yourself. Now, you do not have the pain signal to know when to stop and your brain says, "hey let's keep going until we find that signal". Signal never comes and you have overeaten again.

3. Excessive consumption of gluten-free processed packaged foods.

When your doctor tells you that you can no longer eat gluten, you immediately feel deprived of many things you once loved; cakes, cookies, breads, desserts. So, when you come across a gluten-free substitute for one of those lost loves, you just have to have it. You may even find yourself eating MORE highly processed junk food than you have previously. However, just because you can have it, does not mean you should have it.

Gluten-free foods tend to have higher calories and carbohydrates than their gluten-filled counterparts, because they need to add more sugar, eggs, dairy and binders to compensate for the lack of structure building gluten. A serving size for a regular package of cookies might be three, but for the same cookie in gluten-free form the serving size might be only one. Just because something is gluten-free, it does not mean it’s sugar-free or calorie-free, in fact, it most likely means the opposite.

Wow Colleen, way to be a Debbie downer. Sorry guys, but it is the truth. However! there are some things you can do to help fight weight gain when going gluten-free:

1. Watch your serving size.

You might be surprised to see what an actual serving of something looks like if you measure it out. A soup bowl of cereal is NOT the actual serving size. Take some time to portion out your food, maybe even track your meals in an app like My Fitness Tracker. This way you can see how many calories you are actually taking in on a daily basis. Also, eat slowly, allow your body to get readjusted to real fullness signals. Take a cue from the intuitive eating movement and sit down with your feelings during a meal, see what your body is trying to tell you.

2. Increase fiber intake with veggies.

Fiber helps you feel fuller longer. Most gluten-free products are low in fiber and may not be fully satisfying. Eating more vegetables with every meal can help keep hunger at bay. How can you add veggies to your breakfast? I love sweet potatoes in the morning, it satisfies my sweet tooth and keeps me full for hours. How about leafy greens? Adding a handful of spinach or kale to you egg scramble is not only pretty, but also full of fiber.

3. Be mindful of packaged processed foods.

How many times can I say packaged processed foods in one article? A lot, if it is going to drive the point home. Anyone, no matter who they are, who consumes too much of any high-calorie food, will gain weight, gluten-free or not. Packaged processed foods are full of calories, carbs, sugars and refined grains. A cookie is still a cookie, a brownie is still a brownie, the "gluten-free" label does not mean it's now a health food. Although, it is absolutely okay to enjoy these types of foods in moderation, but if you start noticing the scale going up, it might be time to cut back on the “gluten-free” junk food.

4. Prioritize time for self-care.

If your ultimate goal is being healthy, which it should be, it is about more than just what you eat. Being healthy involves exercising regularly, getting plenty of fresh air and sunshine, adopting good sleep habits and working on ways to manage stress. You should be feeling less bloated and have more energy now that you are not hurting yourself with gluten consumption. Put that energy to good use, get out, get those steps in and improve your mood and cardiovascular health at the same time.

If you have already started your gluten-free diet journey and have gained weight, it is totally normal and not permanent. You may just need to start creating new healthy habits and stay clear of the gluten-free junk food for a while. Losing weight and health management extend well beyond the elimination of one food group. It’s about making good food choices, eating plenty of fiber-rich foods, eliminating most highly processed packaged foods, and practicing some self-care.

(1) Dickey, W & Kearney AJG (2006); 101: 2356-2359

Colleen Saltarelli

Colleen is an ISSA Certified Nutrition Coach, Culinary Institute of America Graduate and Your Gluten-Free Celiac Sidekick.

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