Why the gluten free diet ends up working

(Teachings from this diet that you can take away and incorporate into your own fitness plan)

The Gist

  1. Many of the gluten free diet programs out there do not just suggest eliminating gluten.

  2. Wheat products are typically quite easy to eat a lot of. Particularly those that are refined, low in fiber and/or low in water content.

  3. Wheat has become the world’s most popular vehicle for processed ‘junk’ food.

  4. Although it is not the gluten that is causing the fat gain or weight loss resistance, going gluten free can eliminate both calories and this ‘junk’ from your diet inadvertently leading to weight loss.

  5. Gluten free can be an easy program to understand (which is a key when it comes to successful fat loss plans) because it is straight forward and there is no wishy washy ‘sometimes’ or ‘moderation’.

  6. Saying you will practice balance and moderation is too ambiguous. You may find that you define these terms differently when you are hungry and have cravings (4 cookies) than when you are motivated and satiated (1 cookie).

  7. Set straight forward guidelines for yourself so you do not need to make difficult decisions when your hunger hormones and cravings have you on your knees.

Yes, the gluten free diet for fitness is still around (I’m talking for non-celiacs). However, it has been beaten into the ground so hard by many of the leaders in the fitness industry and medical community that it seems to have caused some people to become closet gluten free dieters. Part of them knows of the lack of support it receives, so they don’t seem to like to wear it as a badge of pride anymore. If you do get them to admit they are gluten free, they’ll probably say “But it’s working for one of my friends…”.

Here’s the thing though, it does work for some people…

What gives, science!?

This is not going to be another article on why this ‘diet’ is not scientifically (or logically) sound. There are too many good articles out there on this. If you haven’t read them, here are a few:

- http://www.precisionnutrition.com/grain-wheat-debate

- http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/is-wheat-free-the-new-atkins/article8788871/

- http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016508513007026

Here’s a funny video just for kicks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AdJFE1sp4Fw

Gluten Free’s big debut

The major book that revolutionized the gluten free diet for the general population was Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis. The dietary lifestyle that this book suggests is not only gluten free, but free of many other items as well. Here are its guidelines:


  • Cornstarch and cornmeal (tacos, tortillas, breakfast cereals, corn chips, corn bread, sauces and gravies thickened with cornstarch)

  • Snack food (potato chips, rice cakes, popcorn, tortilla chips, trail mix)

  • Dessert including cakes, cookies, ice cream, chips, dry roasted peanuts, fruit fillings, granola and granola bars, licorice, nut bars, pies)

  • Rice (all types to less than 1/2 cup per day)

  • Potatoes

  • Legumes (all beans, chickpeas and lentils to less than 1/2 cup per day)

  • Gluten-free food

  • Fruit juices and soft drinks

  • Dried fruits

  • Bulger, kamut, barley, triticale, and rye

  • Quinoa, sorghum, buckwheat, millet, oats, amaranth, teff, chia, etc to less than 1/2 cup a day

  • Cured meats (sausages, bacon, hot dogs, salami, deli meats, etc.)

  • Self basting turkey

  • Canned meats

  • Fruit (though you're allowed small amounts - 8-10 blueberries, 2 strawberries, a few wedges of apple or orange - but markedly limit bananas, pineapple, mango, and papaya)

  • Dairy products (cottage cheese, yogurt, milk and butter to no more than 1 or 2 servings daily)

  • Soy products

  • Fried foods

  • Sugary condiments or sweeteners including ketchup, malt vinegar, soy sauce and teriyaki sauce

  • Beer

  • Scotch

  • Wine coolers

  • Vodka

  • Flavoured teas

  • Blue cheese

  • Hydrolyzed and textured vegetable protein

  • Energy, protein and meal replacement bars

  • Veggie burgers and mock meat products


  • Vegetables

  • Cheese

  • Oil

  • Eggs

  • Raw nuts

  • Uncured Meats

  • Non sugary condiments

  • Ground flaxseed

  • Avocado

  • Olives

  • Coconut

  • Pickled vegetables

  • Raw seeds

  • Herbs and spices

You’ll notice I highlighted gluten free foods. Hmm… I thought gluten was the cause of all life’s problems? If you follow wheat belly or almost all other gluten free diet programs for the sake of health or fitness (including grain brain, the bulletproof diet and paleo) they all advise against gluten free alternative products. More on this later.

Looking carefully at this list, all of a sudden, we don’t just have a gluten free diet, we have a low carb, low refined sugar, mainly unprocessed and high vegetable diet. If we match this with the typical North American diet which is too high in carbohydrates, too high in processed foods, too high in refined sugars and too low in vegetables, we have a knockout! This suggested diet would likely result in an increase intake of nutrient dense (rather than calorie dense) foods, could reduce or eliminate vitamin/mineral deficiencies and increase satiety (the feeling of fullness) to reduce the likelihood of overeating. Sounds like a pretty good recipe for weight loss if you can stick to it.

What about the wheat?

What about the wheat though? Is its absence also contributing to fat loss and better health?

As it turns out, wheat products are typically quite easy to eat a lot of[1]. Particularly those that are refined, low in fiber and/or low in water content[2]. However, it also happens to be one of our staples in Canada and America; think a bagel with breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner. All over the world wheat is the most widely grown crop and currently provides about 19% of our total daily calorie intake[3]. You will rarely find a menu, let alone a plate, without some type of wheat on it!

The overabundance of over-processed grains

Here is a list of the top 6 sources of calories for Americans:

The number under each food indicates the average number of calories that this particular item contributes daily. If you were to follow an ONLY gluten free diet (not one of the programs mentioned earlier), you would have just eliminated a large calorie contributor (remember 19%) including 3 of the top sources of calories (pizza, bread and grain-based desserts). Just with these three sources gone, this would be an average reduction of about 400 calories.

Wheat has become a vehicle for crappy calorie dense foods. When you go gluten free, suddenly you’re not eating cake, high sugar cereals, pizza, large baguettes in one sitting, unfilling white bread, calorie dense bagels, donuts or cookies. These items have now been removed that you probably shouldn’t have been eating much of in the first place.

One more funny video just for a few more kicks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4jMWWEjH9E

Simplicity is the key

Voila, we now have a diet that lowers the amount of calories you consume using a SIMPLE guideline. With something as easy to follow as avoid all gluten containing foods, it’s straight forward and there aren’t any difficult decisions to be made as there are no exceptions.

It is important to remember that this won’t necessarily work for everyone. If you’re area of overeating is not typically of starchy foods, gluten free will likely make little difference. By this I mean, if the issue is French fries, ice cream and candy, and not bagels, white bread and pasta then the gluten free diet will not make much of an impact on your nutritional or caloric intake.

Also, if gluten containing junk food products are just being replaced with gluten-free junk food products there won’t be much of a difference in the waist line here either (this is where diet programs like wheat belly cover their butts). We humans have recently found equally tasty ways to turn products into gluten free transporters of junk as well. Here is an informative (and entertaining) read on this:

- http://news.nationalpost.com/health/jennifer-sygo-a-gluten-free-brownie-is-still-just-a-brownie-albeit-more-expensive-and-with-fewer-nutrients


Therefore, to answer the question, CAN the gluten free diet work? Yes. Is it because of the gluten? No. It’s because it’s a simple guideline that CAN drive behavior change by being relatively easy to understand and, therefore, stick to.

What you can do

1. Do what works

By no means am I an advocate of the gluten free diet, BUT I am an advocate of diets that work. And by work I mean both for health and your fitness goal. If you’ve found a dietary lifestyle (like the gluten free diet) that works for you and keeps you healthy and happy, high fives all around. However, keep in mind that just because it worked for you doesn’t mean it’s going to work for the physiologically different, psychologically different, ethnically different, financially different, culturally different (etc) person next to you.

2. Choose whole grains

Want a way to continue eating grains without it resulting in you mowing down a bunch of empty calories? Stick to whole grains. Whole grains contain more fiber to satisfy you over longer periods of time and contain more nutrients than white or whole wheat[4].

3. Keep it simple and straight forward

Although the science isn’t there to support its claims of resolving all of life’s problems, demonizing gluten can be effective at driving behavior change. Simple straight forward rules are easier to follow. Giving the recommendation or telling yourself to enjoy everything in balance and moderation may be too ambiguous. What is a balanced serving of cookies? How often is cake in moderation? The answer to these questions are different for everyone. If you’re not setting straight forward guidelines for yourself in advance then balance may end up turning into 4 cookies and moderation may turn into every night. Next thing you know, being balanced and moderate is just being used to justify bad decisions.

Having a straight forward plan with measureable outcomes can help keep you in check. Example: A scoop of ice cream twice per week max and 2 cups of vegetables at dinner daily.

Now you have outcomes you can measure and targets to meet for reaching your fitness goals.

The key to success when you feel like nothing else is working


  1. Holt SH, Miller JC, Petocz P and Farmakalidis E (1995). A satiety index of common foods. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7498104

  2. Gerstein DE, Woodward-Lopez G, Evans AE, Kelsey K and Drewnowski A (2004). Clarifying concepts about macronutrients’ effects on satiation and satiety. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 10.1016/j.jada.2004.04.027

  3. Braun HJ, Atlin G and Payne T (2010). Multi-location testing as a tool to identify plant response to global climate change. Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International. 10.1079/9781845936334.0115

  4. Holt SH, Brand-Miller JC and Stitt PA (2001). The Effects of Equal-energy Portions of Different Breads on Blood Glucose Levels, Feelings of Fullness and Subsequent Food Intake. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 10.1016/S0002-8223(01)00192-4