Over the last couple of years, more and more people have turned to a gluten-free diet, some because it provides real benefits for living with celiac disease, while many others perceive it to be healthier than a normal diet and perhaps an aid to weight loss. But does the idea that going gluten-free promotes health and weight loss stand up?
Products labeled as vegan are also often perceived as being more healthy than products that contain animal products, but is this always true? Read on to find out.
Does a gluten-free diet aid in weight loss?
Something labeled as “gluten-free” won’t necessarily mean it will help you lose weight. In fact, if you are not careful, a gluten-free diet can lead to weight gain.
Any product labeled as gluten-free simply means it doesn’t have gluten in it - but it may still be loaded with fat and sugar and be more calorie-dense than the gluten-equivalent. Many gluten-free products contain more additives because the lack of gluten can equate to a lack of flavor.
For example, a gluten-free pizza is still a pizza, a gluten-free cake is still a cake, and gluten-free bread is still bread. You may find that some of them offer slightly healthier options, but if you are looking to lose weight, opting for true healthier options that are less carbohydrate-intensive will give you better results.
Why do people lose weight on a gluten-free diet if this is the case?
It is undeniable that some people following a gluten-free regime do lose weight but that is not because they have cut out gluten. Most people who adopt this diet are health conscious and so make healthy choices over what foods they consume. By including more fruit, veggies, and low-fat protein in their diets, they are reducing calorie intake and so encouraging weight loss.
This same awareness about what they eat also means that anyone on a gluten-free diet may also decide to avoid junk food and processed food. So they mostly lose weight due to their lifestyle choices, rather than a gluten-free diet, though if someone doesn’t have many gluten-free options where they live, they may be “forced” into a healthier diet by necessity rather than as a choice.
If someone is gluten intolerant or has celiac disease and switches to a gluten-free diet, they are also likely to lose weight initially as their digestive system settles down and they stop feeling bloated and uncomfortable.
Does a vegan diet promote weight loss?
Becoming vegan is another popular dietary option and has also been linked to weight loss. Studies have shown that a vegan diet may provide more weight loss than a simple vegetarian diet. But once again, it is cause and effect. The majority of people who decide to become vegan care intensely about what they eat, so fresh veggies, fruits, and other nutrient-rich foods are a big part of what they consume on a daily basis.
That said, any processed food labeled as vegan is likely to be just as unhealthy as a version that contains dairy products. For example, a vegan chocolate bar will contain about the same calories and sugar content as one that contains dairy. Remember that sugar and salt are vegan! You can head to McDonald’s and order fries - whether you normally think of them as “vegan” or not doesn’t change the fact they aren’t good for you.
So why are so many vegans thin?
Being vegan doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll suddenly lose weight. Remember, when you remove the majority of traditional sources, the diet can easily become extremely focused on carbohydrate sources, such as pasta, noodles, rice, and so on. People who are just starting out with a vegan diet often run into this problem, and it requires some mindful substitutions and–just as with any other type of diet–making mindful choices to stay healthy and lose weight.
The reason why you may find that many vegans you meet are thin is because many vegans spend a lot of time thinking about what they’re eating and how to make sure their body isn’t missing anything essential. A vegan lifestyle also often comes hand-in-hand with an eco-friendly lifestyle, so most vegans look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint, and cooking with whole foods is often a good way to do that and control where their ingredients are being sourced from.
So are vegan and gluten-free foods always unhealthy?
No, not necessarily. They may be unhealthy if they are heavily processed and full of sugar and fat. You need to look at labels carefully when considering what to eat if you’re not preparing it yourself, whether you’re eating gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, or vegan. No label (even labels that say “healthy” or “low calorie”) will tell you if something is truly good for you or not and suitable for your health goals - you need to look at the nutritional information and consider if it fits into your health plan or not.
So, are gluten-free foods and vegan foods sabotaging your weight loss? You can integrate foods labeled as gluten-free and vegan into your diet, but you need to use the nutritional label as a guide, not the words on the front of the packet.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.