We all know that the gluten free diet is seen as a trendy way to lose weight. But for many of us forced to give up gluten due to celiac disease or intolerance, we’ve actually gained weight (in my case, close to 30 pounds in three years.) I’ve written about the importance of careful attention to nutrition as well as the benefits of exercise. Now let’s look at the relationship between celiac disease and weight management.
How it starts
Often, celiacs have been very sick, for a long time, before getting their diagnosis. As such, it’s common for uncontrolled weight loss to be a symptom that helps lead to diagnosis (though not always – I certainly didn’t have this one!) When still eating gluten, many of us were experiencing a number of digestive calamities, including the inability to hold food down (or it passing right through quickly.) Some suffered from malabsorption and may have been eating all kinds of food just to feel like something was sticking.
Once on a gluten free diet, weight gain can occur for a number of reasons. Once the damage from eating gluten heals, absorption improves, allowing the body to process valuable nutrients – and calories from the food. However, if a person is used to eating quite a lot just to keep anything down, suddenly they may find that they are consuming way too many calories. It’s called “portion distortion,” according to an article in Today’s Dietician.
Adding to this is the fact that many gluten free foods, like breads and crackers, are higher in sugar, fat and calories than their wheat-based counterparts. It’s basically a double whammy for the body, and many of us have gained weight as a result.
How to fix it
It can be tricky balancing a gluten free, reduced calorie diet with nutritional needs. The food needs to be satisfying and it must provide sufficient fiber, vitamins and minerals, according to an article in Gluten Free Living. In their article, they note that some of the most popular weight loss programs like SlimFast, Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig aren’t appropriate for someone following a gluten free diet. However, gluten free eaters may find success with Weight Watchers or Medifast, both of which can cater to the needs of a celiac.
Or, they suggest trying the Mediterranean or paleo diets. They spoke with a dietician who recommended the Mediterranean diet, which is mainly plant-based and low on red meat. Conversely, they also recommend the paleo diet, which is meat and plant-based and avoids grains, dairy and legumes.
About six weeks ago, I reached my heaviest weight ever and decided it was time to make a change. I’ve taken elements from both the Mediterranean and paleo “diets” in an effort to reform my eating habits for life. My rules are:
Low-grain & potato: I aim to have only one serving of rice, corn or potatoes per day, preferably earlier in the day.
Focus on protein: Eat foods rich in protein, like meat, beans and lentils, and dairy. This has been a bit of an issue for me in the past since my partner, Legend, is vegetarian. I was making meals based around rice and pasta and not paying enough attention to protein. Plus, focusing on eating meat and legumes is helping me address my iron deficiency.
Unlimited vegetables and lots of fruit: So I don’t ever feel deprived, I allow myself as many raw or steamed vegetables as I’m craving. I also try to have a serving or two of fruit every day.
Healthy fats: I mainly use olive or coconut oil for cooking, and have been eating more cashews, pecans and pine nuts as well.
For me, focusing on making sure I eat enough of the right foods has taken the focus off of what I can’t or shouldn’t eat. By the time I’ve met my protein, iron, fruit and vegetable goals, there’s not much room left for cravings! I do allow myself a couple cheat meals and a few glasses of wine per week as well. I’ve found it helpful to track my calories and my water intake to keep myself aware of what I’m eating each day. When I first started, I was shocked to learn that I was eating about 600 calories too much, every day. For the first few weeks, I measured out portions using a food scale, and that’s helped me adjust my mindset to what a serving should really look like.
I will confess that the low grain/potato bit is really hard for me because I LOVE potatoes. However, I find I feel much better when I reduce the strictly “carby” foods and focus on protein and vegetables.
Note that this isn’t a low carb/Atkins-style diet; because I’m still eating fruit and legumes, I’m getting a fair amount of carbohydrates. I tried a no carb diet once and felt like absolute crap. That’s not for me.
As for you, work with your doctor or GP (and a nutritionist if you have access to one) to find a diet plan that will work for you and is sustainable over the long term. I can’t bear to think that I’ll never eat another French fry, so if I’m craving them for a while, I’ll make that my carb for the day or have a cheat meal. It’s about making better food choices most of the time, and everyone can benefit from that approach.
Also – even with dietary changes, exercise is key in losing or even maintaining weight. Read more about the benefits of exercise for celiacs here.
Tell me, fellow gluten free eaters – have you struggled with your weight since giving up gluten? Have you found anything that works for you? Tell me in the comments!