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Celiac Disease, Gluten Sensitivity and Gluten Free Diets for Weight Loss

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The prevalence of individuals who follow a gluten free diet has increased over the past several years.  You may wonder what it means to be gluten free, how can it affect athletic performance, and what foods are included in a gluten free diet?

Celiac Disease

There are two types of celiac sprue’s, non-tropical sprue and tropical sprue.  Non-tropical sprue is another name for celiac disease.  Tropical sprue is caused by inflammation in your intestines.  This can cause malabsorption especially with in the absorption of folic acid and vitamin B12.  When an individual is diagnosed with celiac disease (autoimmune condition), his or her small intestine reacts to the protein (gluten) found in wheat, rye, and barley.  Gluten spurs essentially attack your small intestine causing damage to the villi.  This damage has the potential to cause malnutrition if not treated with a gluten free diet.

Athletic performance can be affected by celiac disease in that athletes that suffer from iron malabsorption, vitamin D malabsorption, and calcium malabsorption. Without proper iron absorption, muscle cells are not fully oxygenated which can cause fatigue and lower exertion capacity. Calcium malabsorption can lead to osteoporosis and poor bone health, increasing the risk of stress fractures and force-based injuries in sports.  It is important for athletes to bring their own gluten free snacks if they are traveling for competitions and to prepare ahead of time to know where gluten free foods can be found when dining out or food shopping.

Besides buying foods that do not contain gluten, you have to keep in mind that cross contamination does occur.  For example, even using a toaster can be dangerous for someone who has a very high sensitivity with celiac disease.  The crumbs from the bread containing gluten can come in contact with the gluten free bread and can then cause the person to have a flare up.  Try to buy another toaster that is just for gluten free bread. When cooking with gluten containing foods, make sure to wash the utensils used very well before cooking any gluten free foods.  Grains that you can experiment with include, but are not limited to, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, millet, taro, corn, and tapioca.  It is important to talk to your pharmacist or physician because some medications also contain gluten.

Gluten Sensitivity

Gluten sensitivity is also a common diagnosis that has become prevalent.  Research has noted that gluten sensitivity is accompanied by a different immune response than celiac disease.  Individuals with gluten sensitivity do not show signs of intestinal damage, but show an increase in an innate immunity marker.  While individuals with celiac disease show an increase in an adaptive immune marker.

Gluten Free for Weight Loss

There have been trends in the weight loss industry of utilizing a gluten free diet to produce weight loss. Despite the recent trend, there is no research supporting a gluten free diet specifically for weight loss in a healthy population. Some theories as to why weight loss occurs with gluten free diets include a natural decrease in calorie intake (restricted baked goods, breads, pastas, etc.), a reduction in carbohydrate intake, or an increase of awareness in food choices which leads to a natural calorie reduction.

The good news is, you don’t have to go gluten free to lose weight! Speak with a registered dietitian to learn the best way to manage your food in order to lose weight and still enjoy favorite foods.

Foods with Gluten

  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Some medicines
  • Some vitamins
  • Wheat flour
  • Triticale
  • Malt
  • Malt flavoring
  • Soy sauce (several sauces and condiments - check label!)
  • Oat (naturally gluten free, but cross contamination occurs)
  • Some coffee substitutes - chicory coffee and teccino
  • Semolina
  • Brewer’s yeast

Gluten Free Foods

  • Cheese
  • Milk
  • Meat and poultry
  • Fish and seafood
  • Beans
  • Legumes
  • Nuts
  • Vegetables
  • Nut flours
  • Millet
  • Potato and potato starch
  • Sorghum
  • Buckwheat/kasha
  • Gluten free oats
  • Chia
  • Flax
  • Arrowroot
  • Corn

Brands with Gluten Free Products 

  • Cassava
  • Rice
  • Bob’s Red Mill
  • Van’s gluten free
  • General Mills cereals (many of their cereals labeled GF)
  • Udi’s bread
  • Food for Life gluten free bread
  • Rudi’s
  • Banza pasta
  • Jovial brown rice pastas
  • Amy’s gluten free pizza
  • Larabars
  • Kind Nut Bars
  • La Choy gluten free soy and teriyaki sauce

The Take Away?

Don’t put unnecessary restrictions on yourself unless you need them! Celiac disease is a serious condition in which the individual can be hospitalized from exposure to gluten, even if it’s just cooked on a surface that wheat has touched. If you are looking to lose weight or having unexplained symptoms (fatigue, bloating, etc.), speaking with a registered dietitian can help you tease out what the cause of these could be, and come up with a research-based, planned approach to monitor over time.