Gaining weight can be challenging for anyone, but especially difficult for those following a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free replacements often have fewer calories and carbohydrates than their gluten-containing counterparts. However, with careful planning and the right food choices, it is absolutely possible to healthily gain weight while eating gluten-free.
Why is it hard to gain weight on a gluten-free diet?
There are a few reasons gaining weight on a gluten-free diet can be difficult:
- Gluten-free replacements are often lower in calories – Gluten-free breads, pastas, and other grain products typically have fewer calories per serving compared to regular varieties.
- Gluten-free foods have less carbohydrates – Many gluten-free substitute foods are made with alternate flours like almond or coconut that are lower in carbs.
- More limited food options – The gluten-free diet eliminates many calorie-dense foods like breads, pizza, pastries, etc.
- Increased fiber intake – Gluten-free grains like quinoa and buckwheat are higher in fiber, which can fill you up faster.
- Gluten is inflammatory for some – Eliminating gluten reduces inflammation and improves gut health for certain individuals, which can result in weight loss.
High calorie gluten-free foods
While the gluten-free diet cuts out many traditional higher calorie options, there are still plenty of nutrient-dense, gluten-free foods that can help you gain weight in a healthy way. Here are some great options:
- Meat – Beef, pork, lamb, chicken, etc.
- Fish – Salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, etc.
- Beans and legumes – Lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, etc.
- Nuts and nut butters – Almonds, walnuts, peanuts, cashews, pistachios
- Seeds – Pumpkin, sunflower, chia, flaxseeds
These protein-rich whole foods not only provide calories but help build and preserve muscle mass as you gain weight. Aim for 20-30 grams of protein per meal.
Fruits and vegetables
While lower in calories than grains, fruits and veggies provide key vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Good options include:
- Dried fruit – Raisins, cranberries, apricots
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Winter squashes – Butternut, acorn, pumpkin
- Cooked greens – Kale, spinach, collards
Fruits and non-starchy vegetables provide volume and nutrients without too many calories. Starchy veggies like potatoes and winter squashes pack more of a calorie punch.
Gluten-free grains and starches
Though gluten-free grains are often lower in calories than wheat-based options, they can still provide an important source of carbohydrates and calories. Look for gluten-free grains like:
- Brown rice
*Ensure oats are certified gluten-free
Starches like potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, squash, and properly prepared beans also make excellent calorie-dense additions to meals and snacks.
While low-fat dieting was once popular, research now shows that healthy fats are incredibly important for overall health. They’re also very calorie dense, providing 9 calories per gram compared to just 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate or protein. Excellent gluten-free sources of healthy fats include:
- Nuts – Walnuts, almonds, pecans, macadamia nuts
- Nut butters
- Seeds – Pumpkin, chia, sunflower, flax
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Full-fat dairy – Whole milk, full-fat yogurt, cheese
- Fatty fish – Salmon, mackerel
Aim for dietary fat sources rich in monounsaturated and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. Limit saturated fat to no more than 10% of total daily calories.
Creating a calorie surplus
To gain weight consistently, you need to be in a calorie surplus, meaning you consume more calories than you burn on a daily basis. Aim for a surplus of about 300-500 calories per day to gain weight at a slow, steady rate. Here are some tips for creating a calorie surplus on a gluten-free diet:
- Add extra gluten-free grains like quinoa or buckwheat to meals
- Cook with healthy oils like olive and avocado oil
- Snack on calorie-dense nuts, seeds, and dried fruit
- Eat larger portions of protein and starch at meals
- Drink milk or smoothies made with milk or yogurt instead of water
- Have an extra snack before bed – try peanut butter on a banana
Tracking your daily calorie intake through an app can help ensure you stay in a surplus. A food scale also helps accurately determine serving sizes.
Weight gain meal plan
Planning your meals and snacks ahead of time ensures you get in enough calories and proper nutrition. Here is a sample high calorie gluten-free meal plan:
– Gluten-free oatmeal made with milk and topped with walnuts and dried cranberries
– Greek yogurt mixed with nuts and seeds
– Vegetable and cheese omelet with avocado
– Banana nut pancakes
– Quinoa Buddha bowl with chickpeas, avocado, nuts and vinaigrette
– Bean and veggie chili over potatoes with cheese
– Leftover salmon, potatoes, and steamed veggies
– Lentil and kale soup with gluten-free bread
– Beef or chicken tacos on corn tortillas with refried beans, cheese, avocado
– Veggie and nut stir-fry over brown rice
– Turkey burger on a gluten-free bun with sweet potato fries
– Chicken thighs with roasted squash and Brussels sprouts
– Trail mix with nuts, seeds, dried fruit
– Apple or celery with nut butter
– Gluten-free crackers with hummus and cheese
– Yogurt with granola
– Protein smoothie
– Hardboiled eggs
When gaining weight, it’s ideal to eat about every 3-4 hours to keep energy levels up. Time snacks between meals.
How to gain muscle on a gluten-free diet
Along with gaining weight overall, you may be looking to build muscle mass through strength training. Here are some tips for gaining muscle effectively on a gluten-free diet:
- Eat enough protein – Aim for 0.5-0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
- Time protein intake – Have a protein shake before and after workouts and distribute protein throughout the day.
- Fill up on complex carbs – Eat plenty of gluten-free whole grains, vegetables, and some fruit to provide sustained energy for your workouts.
- Watch fat intake – Limit high fat foods since excess calories from fat don’t build muscle as effectively as carbs or protein.
- Take a mass gainer supplement (optional) – These provide extra calories along with protein, carbs, vitamins and minerals.
- Get enough calories overall – Follow steps above to maintain a calorie surplus to see muscle growth over time.
With proper strength training, sufficient protein intake, and extra calories, you can effectively build muscle on a gluten-free diet.
Supplements and shakes for weight gain
Adding nutritional supplements or weight gain shakes into your diet can make it easier to get in extra calories and nutrients for weight gain. Here are some good gluten-free options:
Whey and plant-based protein powders like pea, hemp or brown rice protein are naturally gluten-free. Choose one that contains 20-30 grams of protein per serving. Use protein powder to make smoothies, shakes, oatmeal or to add a protein boost to gluten-free baked goods.
Weight gain shakes/smoothies
Blend a scoop of protein powder with banana, avocado, nut butter, milk or yogurt, and seeds or nuts. You can easily make a 500+ calorie smoothie full of protein, carbs, healthy fats and nutrients.
These provide a more complete source of calories in shake or powder form, containing protein, carbs, and some healthy fats. They provide anywhere from 400-1200 calories per serving for quick weight gain.
Since the gluten-free diet cuts out enriched breads and cereals, Omega-3s can be lacking. Fish oil, flax, or algal oil supplements help fill this nutrient gap.
The gluten-free diet can be low in fiber since fortified breads and cereals must be avoided. A fiber supplement like psyllium husk caps can help maintain regularity.
A standard multivitamin-mineral supplement helps cover any potential nutritional gaps in the gluten-free diet and supports overall health.
Work closely with your doctor or dietitian when adding supplements to ensure they are appropriate for your individual nutritional needs and health status. Start with smaller amounts and monitor your response.
Potential complications of rapid weight gain
While the goal is weight gain, it’s important to do so at a healthy, gradual pace to avoid potential complications like:
- Increased body fat – Gaining weight too rapidly often results in a higher percentage of fat gain rather than muscle mass.
- Stretch marks – Quickly gaining body fat can lead to stretch marks on the skin.
- Impact on cardiovascular health – Excess fat gain stresses the heart and blood vessels.
- Increased disease risk – Obesity increases the risk of health conditions like diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
- Nutritional deficiencies – Eating primarily high-calorie foods can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
- Gastrointestinal issues – Consuming excessive calories, fats or protein can lead to GI upset.
- Disordered eating – Obsessively tracking intake and weight can contribute to conditions like orthorexia.
To stay healthy while gaining, aim to increase your body weight slowly at a rate of about 1 pound per week with a focus on lean muscle mass gains. Work with a registered dietitian to ensure you meet all of your nutritional needs while avoiding complications.
When to see a doctor
It’s always a good idea to partner with your healthcare provider whenever making significant changes to your diet or lifestyle. Schedule an appointment to discuss weight gain with your doctor if:
- You have a health condition like diabetes or heart disease that requires weight management.
- You are underweight due to an underlying medical issue.
- You suspect you may have an eating disorder or disordered thoughts around food.
- You’ve made concerted efforts to gain weight but have not been successful long term.
- You have concerns about your nutritional status.
Your doctor can pinpoint any obstacles to weight gain, assess your overall health, and refer you to a registered dietitian nutritionist for personalized guidance if needed. Ongoing medical supervision ensures you gain weight safely and meet nutrient needs.
Gaining weight with celiac disease or on a gluten-free diet absolutely can be done by focusing on calorie-dense whole foods, planning balanced meals and supplements as needed. Work with your healthcare team to set safe goals for a gradual weight increase mainly comprised of muscle. With persistence and proper nutrition, you can achieve your healthy weight gain goals gluten-free.