5 Worst Gluten-free Diet Mistakes

The key to achieving success after going gluten-free is to understand what gluten is and eat a balanced diet.

The truth is, navigating the gluten-free diet landscape can be tricky. Here are five common missteps of going gluten-free and how to resolve them.

I took some tests for celiac disease after experiencing some wacky symptoms. While the report returned negative, I noticed that I still felt better when I stuck to a gluten-free diet.

I'm a registered dietitian. And many of my clients have been in the same boat. Others seek me out after going gluten-free and feeling worse or even gaining weight, which seems to be increasingly common. 

Not Understanding What Gluten Is and Isn't

One client recently said, "I'm not really sure what gluten is, but I know it's bad, right?"

Many people are a little in the dark about the issue of gluten. But to put it in a nutshell: gluten is a type of protein. You'll typically find gluten in foods such as:

  • Wheat, like durum, emmer, semolina, and spelt
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Triticale

Celiac Disease

For people with celiac disease, consuming even small amounts of gluten triggers unwelcome symptoms, including belly pain and bloating.

Only about .5% to 1% of the population has celiac disease. Although, many people may have the condition without knowing it.

Symptoms erupt when gluten causes the immune system to damage or destroy the tiny, fingerlike structures called villi. Villi line the small intestine like a microscopic plush carpet. Healthy villi absorb nutrients through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream.

When villi become damaged, you cannot absorb nutrients. You may develop chronic malnutrition, weight loss, and exhaustion. Other symptoms may include muscle or joint pain, depression, and skin problems.

In people with that diagnosis, the only way to reverse the damage, and the accompanying symptoms, is to avoid gluten altogether.

Gluten Intolerance or Sensitivity

People like me, who test negative for celiac disease, may have gluten intolerance or sensitivity. In those cases, while you don't have celiac disease, consuming gluten may cause bothersome side effects. Some of the most common side effects include:

  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Muscle cramps
  • Numbness in legs

Unfortunately, there is no objective test for gluten sensitivity. And the symptoms may be related to other issues, including stress, which makes it a not-so-black-and-white problem.

Confusing Gluten-free With Refined Grain-free Foods

Numerous people say they eat gluten-free, but only foods like white bread with hearty whole-grain versions

But gluten is not only present in wheat. And those whole-grain replacements may include spelt and rye, both of which contain gluten. You may feel great after making those swaps if you don't have celiac disease or gluten intolerance. 

Whole-grain bread can also lead to weight loss. Trading refined grains for whole grains ups your fiber intake, boosts satiety, and regulates blood sugar and insulin levels. And while those are all good things, they are unrelated to gluten.

Thinking It Equals Weight Loss

You may have seen a friend, co-worker, or celebrity suddenly slim down after proclaiming to give up gluten.

And while going gluten-free may lead to weight loss, it may be thanks to giving up high-calorie foods containing gluten. Those foods—like bagels, pasta, crackers, pretzels, and baked goods—usually pack dense amounts of refined carbohydrates.

Replacing those foods with more vegetables and healthy gluten-free whole grains, like quinoa and wild rice, cuts excess carbohydrates, ups fiber and nutrients, and produces soaring energy.

However, going gluten-free can also lead to weight gain.

Loading Up on Junk Food

There are dozens of gluten-free options in markets, including gluten-free versions of bagels, pasta, crackers, pretzels, and baked goods.

For example, a gluten-free cookie may pack 60 calories—more than a regular sandwich cookie has. That's fine if gluten-free is your preference. But it won't save you calories if weight loss is your goal.

And some gluten-free foods are made with refined gluten-free grains, stripped of fiber and nutrients. White rice is an example.

The bottom line is that simply going gluten-free doesn't guarantee weight loss. The quality and quantity of your food still matter the most.

Ignoring the Rest of Your Diet

Additionally, balance is critical for feeling well and achieving weight loss.

I've seen people trade white pasta for healthy whole grains, like quinoa or wild rice, but still eat portions far too large. Therefore, they don't see weight loss results. Others believe eating unlimited amounts of healthy gluten-free foods like fruit and nuts is OK.

But sadly, any time you eat more than your body can use or burn, even from healthy foods, you create surpluses. And those surpluses shuttle straight to your body's storage unit of fat cells.

If you have celiac disease, you absolutely must avoid gluten. Gluten lurks in many products, from salad dressings and seasoning mixes to vitamins. You may even find gluten in lip balm. So, eliminating it entirely is a big commitment.

On the other hand, if you think you may be gluten intolerant, try to avoid gluten and monitor how you feel. But in either case, the most critical thing you can do is to strive for a healthy, balanced, whole foods diet.

A Quick Review

Many people choose to adopt a gluten-free diet. People with celiac disease must avoid gluten altogether. In those cases, gluten often causes severe complications and uncomfortable symptoms. Others may be gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive. And some people adopt a gluten-free approach to lose weight or maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The keys to a successful gluten-free diet are understanding what gluten is and isn't, eating healthier foods, and eating the correct portion sizes. 

If you're unsure whether you have celiac disease or are gluten intolerant, consider a visit with your healthcare professional and possible testing.

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10 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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