I have written about my gluten intolerance and how it has impacted me a few times throughout this blog and specifically in Are You or Someone You Love Gluten Intolerant?, as well as, told my story on www.facebook.com/tanyaweightlossconfessions.
Since it is such an important and potentially impactful topic, I have asked an expert to chime in with information on how gluten can negatively affect your weight loss.
Dr. Sarah Axtell, ND is a naturopathic doctor, who provides holistic supportive health and wellness consultations for the entire family. She helps people who are facing many different chronic health conditions, such as hormonal imbalances, autoimmune diseases, gastrointestinal disorders, cancer, anxiety, and weight loss resistance. She believes strongly in addressing you as an individual, not just your symptoms. She specializes in addressing the root cause of illness by utilizing effective, natural therapies including clinical nutrition, botanical medicine, homeopathy, hydrotherapy, detoxification, and biotherapeutic drainage. Dr. Axtell practices at Lakeside Natural Medicine in Shorewood, WI.
Ditch the Wheat, Drop the Weight
Weight loss is more complex than the “calories in, calories out” model. Simply counting calories and working out at the gym often does not cut it. Balancing hormones (thyroid, adrenal, and sex hormones) along with reducing inflammation are key factors for effective, sustainable weight loss. This can be achieved by ditching the wheat (gluten).
Here are ways eating gluten (the inflammatory protein in wheat) can make you fat, sick and tired:
- Leptin resistance. Leptin is a hormone that tells your brain it is full. However chronic inflammation from eating gluten-containing foods impairs the brain’s ability to receive leptin’s appetite suppressing message, causing leptin resistance. This can lead to overeating and weight gain.
- Gluten is one of the most inflammatory food proteins and can trigger inflammation in any organ system, establishing an environment for weight gain and chronic disease. Consuming a whole-foods, gluten-free diet will help you eliminate the excess swelling and fluid that accumulates in your tissues from food-induced chronic inflammation.
- Increased cortisol= increased belly fat. Inflammation increases levels of your stress hormone, cortisol. Increased cortisol leads to fat storage, especially in the midsection. This is one of the underlying mechanism for the infamous “wheat belly.” In addition to increased abdominal fat, excess cortisol can lead to a “wired but tired” feeling and insomnia, further exacerbating the vicious cycle of weight gain and obesity. See here why Insomnia is Making you Fat.
- Insulin resistance. Gluten-containing foods such as cookies, breads, cakes, pastas, pretzels, rolls, and crackers have a high glycemic index and spike your blood sugar. Your pancreas results in a release of insulin to reduce blood sugar. When you constantly eat these high carb foods, your cells can become resistant to insulin. This insulin resistance promotes fat storage and can make it very difficult to lose weight. Inherently gluten-free foods, such as meat, nuts, seeds, fish, and vegetables are low glycemic and will not contribute to this state of insulin resistance/fat storage. *Note many gluten-free processed foods (GF breads, GF pasta, GF bagels, GF cookies, GF crackers, etc) can actually be higher glycemic (ie. higher carb) than their gluten-containing counterparts. See below for more cautionary info on a GF diet.
- Leaky gut. When the lining of the gut is inflamed (from gluten, for example), small gaps open between tightly woven cells of the intestines. This allows an influx of undigested food molecules to enter the bloodstream where they are considered foreign invaders. The immune system then attacks full force and systemic inflammation ensues. This inflammatory state contributes to swelling, pain, heart disease risk and weight gain.
- Thyroid dysfunction. The molecular structure of gluten is similar to that of the thyroid. When the immune system attacks gluten, it can also trigger antibodies against your thyroid (resulting in Hashimoto’s). This is called “molecular mimicry.” Many people are unsuccessful at losing weight due to thyroid disease. Thyroid medication is only one piece to the puzzle when it comes to addressing hypothyroidism and thus boosting the metabolism. If you have autoimmune thyroid disease (Hashimoto’s), a strict gluten-free diet is a must!
- Increased Cravings. I commonly hear “I am addicted to bread” in my office. There is legitimacy to this. If you are eating gluten and are in fact too sensitive to it, your body may produce drug-like, opiate-like molecules (called exorphins). This can lead to a temporary high or sense of euphoria, leading to more cravings. Unfortunately, for many, the 80:20 rule does not work. Like an alcoholic ditching alcohol, individuals with a gluten sensitivity need to give up gluten 100% in order to heal.
Caution with GF diets- the potential for Weight Gain
A gluten-free diet does not necessarily equate to a healthy diet. Snacking on certified gluten-free cookies or making gluten-free pasta regularly will not aid in your weight loss efforts. In fact, many gluten-free products are higher in carbs than their gluten-containing counterparts (thanks to the very high glycemic white rice flour, corn starch, tapioca starch, and potato starch added to these GF processed foods).
A good rule of thumb is to stick to the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid the inner aisles. Don’t get sucked into the gluten-free aisle with gluten-free bread and gluten-free crackers thinking its better for you. Junk food is junk food, whether it’s gluten-free or not.
The key to staying lean and healthy is sticking to lower carb whole foods- eggs, meat, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, vegetables and low glycemic fruits (berries are best!).