Can gluten intolerance cause weight gain? Excess weight can be tied to many foods and eating patterns. One that many people may not think about is gluten. Learn more about how your carbohydrate choices may influence your weight.
Important point: any food that may cause inflammation in the body may also lead to weight gain.
When gluten intolerance or allergy occurs, so does inflammation. In this post, I will describe the many ways gluten may be making you put on the pounds.
Table of Contents
What is Gluten?
Gluten is simply a type of protein in grains: it is in wheat, barley, rye, and sometimes oats.
What is Gluten Sensitivity?
Gluten sensitivity is real and up to 30% of the population has it according to research published in Frontiers in Physiology.
The only way to diagnose gluten sensitivity is through the elimination of gluten at this time.
When someone eliminates a food sensitivity, it can help with weight loss, sometimes quickly.
Why do they get better? And why do they often get leaner, sometimes very quickly? Let’s take a look at the research.
Can Gluten Sensitivity Cause Weight Gain? Immune System Imbalances
Immune responses to gluten can create danger signals in the body, which shunt nutrients in undesirable ways. One result: the body can become hungrier and bigger.
Clinicians all over the country are slowly learning for themselves that people can become better after gluten elimination. They can even heal very serious illnesses and perhaps lose weight, with a gluten-free diet as part of a balanced diet.
Take the work of Dr. Terry Wahls as an example. She had progressive multiple sclerosis. Both in her life and in her research she found great success with this: a gluten-free diet plus copious amounts of vegetables and other healthy habits.
Her progressive, debilitating disease was lifted with a gluten-free, healthy diet. Her research is showing similar results.
Another finding in her research: her diet plan is very healthy and well-rounded; she has almost completely recovered from her MS.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease of imbalanced immunity and diet plays a powerful impact on the course of the disease.
Imbalanced immunity can occur even with subtle gluten intolerance.
Can Gluten Intolerance Cause Weight Gain? Connection to Inflammation
Gluten Increases Zonulin
Gluten increases a protein called zonulin in the digestive tract. The higher the zonulin levels, the more likely a person is to have obesity, bigger waists, and high cholesterol according to some research.
But gluten is not the only food that changes zonulin in the body; it is one of many factors. However, it is one of the biggest culprits for raising this leaky-gut compound.
Gluten May Cause Leaky Gut
Gluten can increase gut permeability or leaky gut, which drives inflammation in the body.
Inflammation due to a leaky gut can make it difficult to lose weight. This is because inflammation can stall fat loss.
Does Gluten Intolerance Cause Weight Gain By Reducing Nutrients?
Inflammation can block nutrient use and metabolism in the body. When the body thinks it is short of nutrients, it will crave food in order to get the nutrients it needs. This is why some patients with Celiac disease become overweight despite being starved for nutrition.
While human studies are early on this topic, animal studies indicate that gluten-free diets may help promote weight loss.
Can A Gluten-Free Diet Be More Nutritious?
Gluten-free snacks aren’t always healthy. But out of necessity, people often eat more vegetables and non-processed foods when following a gluten-free diet.
On a gluten-free diet, you won’t be grabbing the breakroom cake or sugar-laden desserts as often.
You also may be less likely to eat those high-calorie, weight-promoting, low-nutrient foods due to the reduced availability of gluten-free options such as:
- Refined crackers
- Enriched Noodles
- Fried foods
Gluten-Free Diets May Make You More Mindful
When you have to look out for gluten, you are consciously making a decision each and every time you eat, not just grabbing the nearest food.
This may be a big part of why gluten-free diets promote weight loss for some people.
Each and every bite requires thoughtful consideration.
Do You Crave Gluten?
So many people struggle with the idea of giving up gluten because it is in their favorite snack at night and they simply can’t live without pasta and bread.
Why does this happen?
When we are sensitive to food, the body can send out endorphins due to the reaction it causes in the body, making us want the foods even more.
Gluten can even make opiate-like chemicals in the body, making us want a lot of gluten!
Lectins in Wheat Can Make You Bloat
Even if you aren’t sensitive to gluten, you may be sensitive to the lectins in gluten-containing grains like wheat.
This can cause pain and bloating, and add to the width of your waistline.
Headlines and research can make some pretty big errors when talking about food and diet.
A recent study about gluten got a lot of press. It stated that gluten-free diets were less healthy than gluten-containing diets. They indicated that gluten-free diets slightly increased the risk of heart disease.
What was missing in these headlines? A lot. The study started over 25 years ago. It collected information about what people eat regularly.
The last diet measurements took place in 2010, before the big surge and trends in gluten-free diets.
In fact, gluten-free diets became popular in 2009-2010. I’m sure people did not have time to develop heart disease specific to gluten-free during this short of a time period.
So how is it even responsible to look at this topic effectively?
Perhaps the biggest research error; not enough time has passed to assess heart disease risk.
This creates an error by omission; gluten-free products were rare in the marketplace at that time and prior to that.
New agricultural practices for gluten-containing crops weren’t present when the study took place, such as crop desiccation.
This is the practice of spraying a weed killer on grains days before harvest, often wheat, soy, and corn.
Who Ate Gluten-Free Products in the Study?
People seeking out gluten-free products in this study most likely had a disease called Celiac disease.
This is a disease that increases mortality, has a lot of inflammation, and more. Celiac disease increases the risk of heart disease dramatically.
It seems obvious that they would find what they did, but they didn’t talk about why in the headlines.
The study also didn’t look at complete gluten exclusion as well. They were looking at levels of gluten intake.
Simply cutting back on gluten likely won’t help a person with Celiac disease or an intolerance. The damage from inflammation can still occur when eating small amounts.
A study can only be as good as the design, and in this case, the questions didn’t get answered with the poor design.
Can Gluten Intolerance Cause Weight Gain? Important Considerations
- Not all gluten-free diets are the same and not all gluten-full diets are the same.
- Most people are on one side of the fence or the other in terms of their beliefs surrounding the hotly debated topic.
- A gluten-free diet is also quite drastically different than people who limit or eat “a little bit of gluten.” Full elimination may be needed to reduce inflammation.
- Gluten-free diets can be as full of junk food as a diet that contains gluten if you aren’t careful.
- It is best to give a gluten-free diet a try for at least 3 weeks to find out if it is going to help you feel better.
- You should be on a high-quality vitamin and mineral supplement if you are considering eliminating gluten because, in many people, gluten has caused poor nutrient absorption.
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 23 years as well as a book author of the new book Gut Fix and The Whole Body Guide to Gut Health, Heidi has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. She has researched supplements and natural medicine throughout her career. One of her biggest loves is helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body and is shared for educational purposes only. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes to your supplement regimen or lifestyle.