Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It gives bread and other baked goods their chewy texture. Gluten does not actually contain carbs itself, but many gluten-containing foods also have carbs.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, and related grains. The two main proteins that make up gluten are:
When flour and water are mixed together, these proteins form elastic strands that give bread its spongy, stretchy texture. Gluten holds baked goods together and helps them rise.
Does Gluten Contain Carbs?
No, gluten itself does not contain carbohydrates or calories. Gluten is a protein, not a carb.
However, gluten is found in foods that do contain carbs:
These foods contain carbs from grains like wheat, barley, and rye. So while gluten itself is just a protein, foods with gluten often have a significant amount of carbohydrates.
Gluten-Free Foods Can Also Contain Carbs
It’s important to note that even gluten-free grains and flours contain carbohydrates. These include:
So gluten-free baked goods, cereals, and pastas can still be high in carbs, even though they don’t contain gluten.
The Difference Between Gluten and Carbs
Here is a summary of the key differences between gluten and carbohydrates:
|Protein found in wheat, barley, and rye||Sugars and starches that provide energy for the body|
|Gives dough its stretchy texture||Found in grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy, legumes, nuts, seeds|
|Does NOT contain calories or carbs||Broken down into glucose during digestion|
|Causes negative health effects for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity||Primary nutrient found in breads, pasta, cereals, baked goods|
While gluten itself does not contain carbs or calories, foods with gluten like bread, cookies, cereal, and beer can be high in carbs.
Whole Grains With Gluten Provide More Nutrients
Whole grains that contain gluten provide more nutrients than refined or gluten-free grains. This includes nutrients like:
- B vitamins
Refining grains removes the nutritious bran and germ, leaving only the starchy endosperm. Unless the grains are enriched, they will be lower in nutrients.
Gluten-free whole grains like rice, corn, quinoa, buckwheat, and oats are healthy choices. But they may not provide the same level of nutrients as whole wheat or barley.
Issues with Gluten
Most people can digest gluten just fine. But for those with specific health conditions, gluten can cause issues:
- Celiac Disease: An autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten. It damages the small intestine.
- Gluten Sensitivity: Gluten causes digestive distress but there is no damage to the intestine.
- Wheat Allergy: An allergic reaction to wheat, related to the proteins in wheat. May or may not involve a reaction to gluten.
For those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, following a strict gluten-free diet is important. This eliminates gluten and improves health.
Foods to Eat on a Gluten-Free Diet
Many healthy and delicious foods are naturally gluten-free:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Beans, legumes, nuts and seeds
- Eggs, fish, poultry and meat
- Milk and other dairy products
- Gluten-free whole grains like rice, quinoa, buckwheat, corn
There are also specialty gluten-free products available, like bread, pasta, crackers, cookies and cereal. These are made with starches and flours that do not contain gluten.
Tips for Following a Gluten-Free Diet
- Check labels carefully for any hidden gluten ingredients
- Look for certification from GFCO, an independent gluten-free certification program
- Choose naturally gluten-free whole foods whenever possible
- Cook more dishes at home so you can control all ingredients
- Avoid breaded, fried foods unless you know they use gluten-free breading
- Watch out for cross-contamination when eating out at restaurants
- Support your diet with proper nutrition and meal planning
Health Benefits of a Gluten-Free Diet
When followed carefully, a gluten-free diet provides the following benefits:
- Relieves gastrointestinal and digestive symptoms
- Heals damage to the small intestine
- Reduces risk of nutritional deficiencies
- Eliminates headaches, fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes
- Leads to overall improved health and well-being
Of course, these benefits really only apply to those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Going gluten-free provides no specific health advantages for those who can tolerate gluten normally.
Potential Drawbacks of a Gluten-Free Diet
There are some elements to keep in mind when following a strict gluten-free diet:
- Difficulty staying compliant long-term
- Social challenges when dining out and traveling
- Higher food costs compared to non-specialty items
- Potential for inadequate fiber, vitamin B, iron, and calcium intake
- Higher sugar and fat intake if relying on packaged gluten-free items
- Feelings of restriction, isolation, or inconvenience
With proper planning, gluten-free diets can be nutritionally balanced. It simply requires effort and commitment. Consulting with a dietitian knowledgeable in gluten-free eating can also help.
Gluten-Free Diet for Weight Loss
Many people go gluten-free in an attempt to lose weight. However, research shows mixed results on whether avoiding gluten promotes weight loss:
- One 2013 study showed that people on a gluten-free diet lost more weight and had improvements in cholesterol and blood pressure.
- Another study found that overweight and obese adults on a gluten-free diet lost no more weight than those on a standard diet.
- In one study, people ate 350 fewer calories per day on a gluten-free diet.
- Yet another study showed thatfat and carb intake remained unchanged on a gluten-free versus regular diet.
While some people may indeed lose weight from going gluten-free, there are no magic powers to gluten-free itself. Weight loss likely results from simply paying more attention to one’s diet and making healthier choices overall.
Tips for Losing Weight on a Gluten-Free Diet
- Focus on fresh, whole foods like produce, lean proteins and dairy
- Limit consumption of packaged gluten-free items like bars, cookies, and cereals
- Read nutrition labels closely to avoid items high in sugar and unhealthy fats
- Watch out for overeating rice, corn, potato and other high-carb gluten-free foods
- Don’t rely too heavily on gluten-free versions of baked goods
- Include healthy fats from nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, fish
- Incorporate nutrient-rich superfoods like quinoa, chia seeds, flaxseed
- Stay active and exercise regularly along with your diet
gluten-free diets are on the rise:
According to surveys and market research data, adherence to gluten-free diets in the U.S. and other countries has increased dramatically over the past several years:
- A 2013 survey found that 30% of U.S. adults said they wanted to cut down on gluten or eliminate it from their diets.
- The market for gluten-free foods is projected to reach around $7.6 billion by 2024, more than triple from 2012.
- Many celebrities and athletes have publicly adopted gluten-free diets.
- Nearly 100,000 new gluten-free products launched globally from 2012 to 2015.
Reasons for the popularity of gluten-free diets include:
- Increased awareness of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity
- Belief that it can improve health for non-celiacs
- Desire for weight loss
- Perception that gluten-free is a “healthier” diet
- Recommendation from alternative health practitioners
- Celebrity endorsements of gluten-free eating
There are also sceptics who argue that the gluten-free trend is overhyped. Critics point out that removing gluten provides no real benefits except for those medically required to follow the diet.
Common Questions about Gluten-Free Diets
1. Is gluten-free healthier?
No, gluten-free is not universally healthier. It provides benefits for managing celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergies. But for others, going gluten-free does not necessarily make the diet healthier.
2. Will I lose weight on a gluten-free diet?
Maybe. Some people do lose weight when eliminating gluten. This may result from paying closer attention to the diet overall. But gluten-free foods are not inherently better for weight loss.
3. Can gluten cause inflammation?
For those with gluten sensitivities, yes it can trigger inflammation and damage to the gut lining. But for others, gluten does not cause inflammation.
4. Is gluten bad for everyone?
No, the majority of people tolerate gluten just fine. Unless you have celiac disease, wheat allergy or gluten sensitivity, going gluten-free is probably unnecessary.
5. Do you need to eat gluten to be healthy?
No, you do not need to eat gluten to be healthy. Gluten-free diets can certainly be healthy with good planning and nutrition.
6. Are oats gluten-free?
Oats are naturally gluten-free, but are often contaminated with wheat during growing and processing. Look for labels specifying gluten-free oats if following a strict gluten-free diet.
7. Is gluten-free bread healthy?
Gluten-free bread may be made from flours that have a better nutritional profile than white flour. But many gluten-free breads are made with starches like tapioca that are low in nutrients. Check the label.
8. Do you lose nutrients without gluten?
Possibly. Nutrients like B vitamins, iron and fiber tend to be higher in gluten-containing grains. It’s important to replace these nutrients with gluten-free foods or supplements if needed.
The Bottom Line
Gluten itself does not contain carbohydrates or calories, but many gluten-containing foods also have carbs. The only way for gluten to impact carbs is by limiting the types of grains and flours consumed on a gluten-free diet.
Gluten-free diets eliminate nutrient-rich gluten grains. With planning, gluten-free diets can be healthy. But going gluten-free is not required for most people and does not necessarily make a diet healthier.