Can Going Gluten-Free Help You Lose Weight?

Cutting out gluten is all the rage—but if you don’t do it right you could end up gaining weight instead.

It can't hurt to try going gluten-free, but only if you do it the right way and don't treat it as a weight-loss diet. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Artiz.Rozentals.

Relatively unknown until the past few years, the gluten-free diet has become increasingly trendy, due in no small part to professional athletes and stars attributing their lean bodies and impressive performances to cutting gluten. And now, thanks to teen performer Miley Cyrus’s recent tweet that her skinny figure is due to gluten allergies, many wonder if going gluten-free is an ideal way to lose weight. 

Not quite, says registered dietitian and celiac disease expert Cheryl Harris. Before you trash every loaf of bread and box of pasta in your pantry, know this: Research shows that most people who go gluten-free actually gain a substantial amount of weight. 

The reason someone like Cyrus who has wheat or gluten allergy has lost weight, Harris says, is because “they’ve cut out large quantities of food or processed food altogether.”

“If anyone were to say, ‘I’m going to give up all sandwiches and pastries,’ then they would absolutely lose weight,” she says. “But that has nothing to do with gluten.”

People who suffer from celiac disease also tend to lose weight because “patients are unable to absorb nutrients in the food they eat, so they lose weight even when they aren’t trying to,” says Vanessa Maltin Weisbrod, executive editor of Delight Gluten-Free Magazine

Adds Heather Aitken-Cade of Celiac Family, once they start a gluten-free diet, weight gain occurs as their body heals and is able to absorb nutrients and calories that once passed through. 

Those who truly suffer from gluten or wheat allergies, celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or autoimmune diseases almost always feel better on a balanced, gluten-free diet. But for those who don’t have a gluten allergy or celiac disease, Weizbrod warns, “You can’t just walk into Whole Foods, buy a ton of gluten-free cakes, cookies, crackers, chips, and treats and consider them diet food.”

Those who raid the gluten-free aisles are going about it the wrong way, adds Mint fitness director Vanessa Hailes. “There’s the population of diet-crazed individuals who think gluten-free screams ‘no carbs!’ What they don’t realize is that there are still carbs, calories, and sugar in gluten-free products.”

They might even end up eating greater quantities of the gluten-free products, “possibly doubling or even tripling their caloric intake, which will prevent weight loss and lead to weight gain,” Hailes adds.

But then there are athletes like pro tennis star Novak Djokovic, who switched to a gluten-free diet last year and later won the US Open. He credited his stellar performance to his dietary change, which he made after a nutritionist said he was allergic to gluten. So could eliminating gluten have the same effect for other people?

Athletes may certainly see positive results by going gluten-free, but for the same reasons most people’s health improves when they go about it the right way, says Weisbrod: They maintain a balanced, natural diet that excludes processed foods while including vegetables, fresh fruits, fish, meats, and whole grains.

In the end, it doesn’t hurt to eliminate gluten from one’s diet, but only if it’s for the right reasons. Harris reminds those looking to go gluten-free that only 6 percent of the population is gluten-sensitive, and 1 percent suffers from celiac disease. That means 93 percent of the population doesn’t necessarily need to give up gluten.

“It may be worth a try,” says Harris, “but it’s not for everyone.”