Gluten-Free Weight Gain?

My digestion has improved on a gluten-free diet, but I have gained unwanted weight. Am I doing something wrong?

A. It’s likely that you’ve been focusing on eating gluten free and nothing else, which is natural when people first begin learning how to eat gluten free. Putting some focus on other aspects of nutrition and fine-tuning your diet is all that is needed to correct the problem.

First, know that it’s exceedingly common to switch to a gluten-free diet and gain weight. One study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that 82 percent of people gain weight after two years of eating gluten free, including 81 percent of people who were originally overweight.

However, the idea of going on a gluten-free diet is to improve health and feel better. If you’re gaining weight or having other health concerns such as rising blood sugar or triglyceride levels, you’re getting clear signals from your body that you need to make some changes.

To give your gluten-free diet an upgrade to guard against weight trouble, try the following diet guidelines from my book Gluten Free Throughout the Year.

Go Gluten Free Naturally

Minimize food products that are labeled gluten free, and emphasize whole foods that are naturally gluten free, such as vegetables, fruits, poultry, fish, and meat, in your diet. That’s the best way to avoid even trace amounts of gluten and to eat a diet rich in nutrients that support health and weight control.

Become More Unrefined

On a day-to-day basis, minimize or avoid foods that contain refined gluten-free flours (i.e., rice flour or white rice flour and starches such as potato starch, tapioca starch, or cornstarch), refined sugars (i.e., sugar, evaporated cane juice, high-fructose corn syrup, or fructose), and refined fats (i.e., vegetable oils, such as corn oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and partially hydrogenated oil). Regular eating of nutrient-poor refined ingredients sets us up for not only unhealthy weight gain, but also nutrient deficiencies and chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. To put this guideline into action, be choosey about the food products that you buy by looking not only for those that are labeled gluten free and don’t contain hidden sources of gluten, but also those that aren’t made with refined ingredients.

Personalize the Diet for You

It’s common for gluten-sensitive people to be sensitive to other foods, such as cow’s milk, soy, corn, eggs, or yeast. Food sensitivities can sometimes be accompanied by strong food cravings for and overeating of the allergy-provoking food, followed by weight gain. In those cases, avoiding the offending food is the answer to holding cravings, overeating, and weight gain at bay. Identify and work around your particular food sensitivities to customize the diet for your best weight and health.

Eat More Against the Grain

When we go gluten free, we often think we just have to trade the wheat-based bread, pasta, baked goods, and snack foods we’re accustomed to for gluten-free versions of those foods. But it’s important to think more outside the box than that. Though they contain no gluten, gluten-free grain products are still high in carbohydrates and relatively low in nutrients compared to the carbohydrates and calories they provide. What many people miss is this: Eating a high-carbohydrate diet, whether gluten free or not, sets us up for weight gain and insulin-related health conditions such as type 2 diabetes. To automatically decrease the carbohydrate and calorie content of your diet and help stimulate fat burning in the body, eat more vegetables in place of grain products. That’s a key, yet overlooked, secret—not only to long-term weight control, but also to optimal health.

Meet Our Expert

Melissa Diane Smith is a holistic nutritionist who counsels clients internationally and specializes in customizing the gluten-free diet for each individual. She is the author of several nutrition books, including Going Against the Grain and her latest, Gluten Free Throughout the Year: A Two-Year, Month-to-Month Guide for Healthy Eating. To learn more about her work, visit melissadianesmith.com and againstthegrainnutrition.com.