The Skinny on: the Gluten-Free Diet and Your Weight

in Celiac
Published: April 22, 2012
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Disproportionate Portions: Thanks to those damaged intestinal walls that don’t absorb nutrients, many with undiagnosed celiac disease can eat large portions of food without gaining weight. “Before being diagnosed, many celiacs become accustomed to eating more food than they need,” says Alice Bast, founder and president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, the Pennsylvania-based non-profit group devoted to improving education and awareness of the disease.

Once celiac disease is diagnosed and the diet undertaken, however, Wall notes that “it can be difficult for adults to modify their eating habits and reduce the quantity of food consumed in order to maintain a healthy weight.”

Consider this: studies show that it takes an average of 11 years to get diagnosed with celiac disease. That’s 11 years of going back for seconds or thirds without gaining a pound. It’s not an easy habit to break.

Foods That Pack Extra Punch: Perhaps the most significant factor in weight gain on a gluten-free diet is unrestrained consumption of alternative foods. Twenty years ago, people with celiac disease had little choice but to banish all breads, cookies, cereals, cakes and crackers from their diets. Today, grocery stores across North America boast an ever-growing number of gluten-free packaged foods.

These foods are tastier than ever, convenient and allow those with celiac disease to enjoy foods like those they used to eat, helping them to feel more “normal.”

Among the aisles of gluten-free products, shoppers can unquestionably find healthful, nutritious options. But to improve taste, many gluten-free packaged foods contain higher amounts of fats and sugars than their gluten-containing counterparts. And that means higher calorie counts in many cases. For example, Wall says gluten-free pretzels can have seven or eight grams of fat per serving, whereas standard pretzels might have zero to two grams.

There’s also the issue of density. Many gluten-free foods have a dense texture, resulting in smaller average portions when compared to gluten-containing foods. For example, if you’re used to filling your bowl to the top with your old cereal and you’re still doing so now with gluten-free cereal, you’re probably eating more servings than you were before, even though the bowl is filled to the same spot.

That said, “it’s important to feel normal and eat a sandwich,” says Bast, who was diagnosed 18 years ago, back when “gluten-free” labels were hidden in small print and were essentially a euphemism for “tastes horrible.” Bast, who cried when she ate her first piece of gluten-free bread, is more than aware of the importance of quick and convenient foods for families. “I know how difficult it is for parents,” she says. “They are looking for convenience.”

In some ways, this amounts to a narrow-focused version of the challenge of all North Americans: how to maintain a healthy weight despite the growing availability of convenient tasty treats. But there’s one key difference. In people with celiac disease, achieving a healthy weight is usually secondary to getting the disease under control. After all, a few extra pounds are nothing compared to a daily onslaught of symptoms including diarrhea, cramping, bloating or flatulence.

What’s more, according to the University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Research, untreated celiac disease can lead to osteoporosis, organ and gynecological disorders, and even certain types of cancer.

“I think healthy eating habits are important,” notes Bast. But for anyone with celiac disease, “before anything else, make sure you are gluten free.”

Related Reading: Top 5 Gluten-Free Weight Tips