this spaghetti cake is neither gluten-free nor part of your balanced breakfast

With all the hoopla lately about this or that celebrity adopting a gluten-free (or “low-gluten”) diet to lose weight, it’s nice to see some new research about gluten-free diets and weight.

As more and more of the people diagnosed with celiac disease are overweight to begin with, researchers in Finland began to wonder how patients’ weight would change once they got used to their new diet. Would they gain weight? Lose it? Would the patients’ starting weights matter?

There are many factors to consider: many gluten-free alternatives are higher in fat and/or calories and/or carbohydrates than the gluten-containing foods they are modeled on. And, people who have not yet been diagnosed are generally not absorbing as much of the nutrition (or calories) from their food as they will once their guts heal. At the same time,  certain unhealthy options become impossible: partaking in office pizza parties or breadsticks at dinner just can’t happen the same way.

The study examined 698 Finnish adults diagnosed with celiac disease and on a gluten-free diet and 141 who were diagnosed via biopsy but not following a gluten-free diet, and compared them to data from the general population.

Of the 698 key patients, 4% were underweight at the time of diagnosis. A further 57% were of normal weight, and 39% were either overweight or obese. The method of diagnosis and the symptoms of the person were not significant. After a year, 33% of the patients had gained at least 3 kilograms, or 6.6 pounds and 16% had lost an equivalent amount of weight. Interestingly, after a year on a gluten-free diet:

  • asymptomatic patients who had been diagnosed via screening had a different experience: 13% gained weight and 26% lost.
  • 69% of underweight patients achieved normal weight and none lost weight.
  • 51% of “normal-weight” patients remained stable and 38% gained weight. However, a total of 87% of normal-weight patients remained in the normal category.
  • 18% of overweight patients lost weight and 60% remained stable.
  • 42% of obese patients lost weight and 43% remained stable (meaning that only 16% gained weight)
  • in short, it seems that the heavier a person was at the time of diagnosis, the more likely they were to lose weight or remain at a stable weight.
Overall, the celiac group had a lower BMI both at the time of diagnosis and one year into their new gluten-free lifestyle than did the general population. The researchers also did a sub-analysis based on gender and found that men had significantly lower BMI at diagnosis but not at the one year mark as compared to the general population. Women were exactly the opposite: no difference between celiac and general populations at diagnosis, but after a year women had notably lower BMIs than their gluten-ingesting counterparts.
If you’re interested in weight management and celiac disease it’s worth reading the whole study, available here, including the discussion. They point to a study out of the UK with somewhat similar aims and different results. You can also read the celiac.com analysis of the study, here.
What has your weight loss / gain / maintenance story been since diagnosis?