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Gluten-Free and Low-Carb Are Not The Same

Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

Two similar trends on nutrition continue to gain popularity. Going gluten-free and following a low-carb lifestyle are becoming more common, and both have been shown to provide positive benefits to health. However, the two are not the same, and understanding the difference can help you get the most out of each, or both if you happen to be following both at the same time.


It’s clear people are becoming more aware of the negative effects of gluten in their diet. The case against gluten has been building the past several years. In fact, our interview with Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly, is one of the most popular articles we've posted on the site. Gluten is a protein that can set off an immune response in those with an allergy or sensitivity to gluten. Though the percentage of people with a diagnosed gluten allergy is very small, experts like Dr. Davis argue that most people who have an issue with gluten don’t know they do. In addition, a sensitivity to gluten may not be seen as serious by some healthcare practitioners. This is unfortunate, since consumption of gluten is tied to at least 55 different diseases.

The most common source of gluten is wheat, so any food with wheat or a wheat product in it has gluten. This includes most packaged foods containing “healthy whole grains.” In our experience, issues with gluten can show up as digestive upset, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), arthritis, skin problems or achy joints and other symptoms. Completely eliminating gluten from the diet for a month is often the best way to determine if it’s an issue. To be effective, it must be completely eliminated, so if you choose to do so, you have to check food labels and ask about ingredients when you eat out.

Eliminating gluten often removes many high-carbohydrate foods from the diet, but food companies have kept up with the popularity of gluten-free diets, so they’ve come up with replacements for wheat. Bread, pasta, cereal and other foods that were once main sources of gluten are now offered with gluten-free sources of starch. While switching to these “gluten-free” foods may help alleviate some of the issues with gluten, they’re not a solution for controlling weight or carbohydrate intake as they’re often loaded with similar amounts of carbohydrate as the original, gluten-containing version of the food.

If you eliminate gluten from the diet, you may notice a little weight loss, especially if the gluten causes inflammation in your body. However, if you fall for the advertising on food packages and buy gluten-free processed foods, you’ll eat just as much, if not more, processed carbohydrate as you would have with the gluten-containing foods.


The premise of a low-carb diet is to control insulin. Insulin is the hormone that determines whether we burn fat for energy, or if we store it. Since consumption of carbohydrates stimulates insulin more than protein or fat, reducing carbohydrate intake should reduce insulin secretion. Less insulin, more fat burn.

The definition of a “low-carbohydrate diet” depends on who you talk to. For some, a low-carbohydrate diet is considered anything under 150 grams of carbohydrate per day, which is actually quite a bit of carbohydrate. One hundred fifty grams of carbohydrate is like six medium apples, 4-5 medium potatoes, 3-4 cups of pasta or 50 ounces of soda. Others consider low-carb at 100 grams or less and still others consider someone on a low-carb diet when they’re consuming 50 grams or less. The truth is, each person can tolerate varying levels of carbohydrate, and those levels can change with time.

Low-carb diets have been supported by growing mounds of evidence. Low-carb in Norway has become so popular the country has been in a shortage of butter since late last year.

Often, those on a low-carbohydrate diet, since they avoid starch, also consume a gluten-free diet. Gluten can still be found in low-carbohydrate foods, so if you’re following a low-carb lifestyle and want to avoid gluten, you should still check labels.

Gluten-Free Weight Loss

Can people lose weight by eliminating gluten? It depends. Some people think they don’t have an issue with eating gluten today. They may not have obvious digestive problems or inflammation. It doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. If they replace gluten-containing carbohydrates with other carbohydrate sources, they’re only swapping one carb for another. Their excess weight could be a result of too much carbohydrate in the diet, so swapping one source for another may not have any effect.

If someone doesn’t have an issue with gluten today, it doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. From a health standpoint, removing gluten for most people seems to be a good idea. However, it is not always a weight loss or weight management solution as there are other factors involved in why one is overweight.

Low-Carb and Weight Loss

A low-carb lifestyle seems to be the best solution for long-term weight management. We’re surrounded by processed foods loaded with sugar and other carbohydrates, so it isn’t always easy for people to adhere to such a lifestyle. That doesn’t mean it’s isn’t effective, though. It just requires a little social support from like-minded people, not those who snack on junk food.

Does everyone who follows a low-carbohydrate lifestyle lose weight? Most people do. I’ve spoken with many people over the years who did not lose weight like they expected following a low-carbohydrate nutrition plan. Most often, they weren’t actually following a low-carbohydrate lifestyle. They ate more fat and protein, but they’d still include breads, some pastas, juice and other carbohydrate sources in their meals each day. Though in their mind they were following a low-carb lifestyle, in reality, they weren’t.

Even with a properly structured low-carb lifestyle, as is recommended in The Art and Science of Low-Carbohydrate Living, some people still struggle to lose weight. That’s why we feel so strongly about people getting a comprehensive lab test done on a regular basis, especially at the beginning of a weight loss program.


Some people who eliminate gluten from their diet do end up following a low-carbohydrate diet, but not always.  Many people who follow a low-carb lifestyle do eliminate gluten because of the foods they choose to keep their carbohydrates low. However, they are not the same. A gluten-free diet does not ensure  one is on the right plan to lose body fat. A low-carb lifestyle does not ensure one is avoiding gluten. However, with a little label reading, the two can work well together in the pursuit of optimal health and long-term weight management.

Add thoughts and comments below. Have you had success with reducing carbohydrates or eliminating gluten? Share your story.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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Reader Comments (2)

Kudos once again Tim for a GREAT informative article. I hope the membership is reading this and taking it seriously. Thanks for promoting the truth!!!

February 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Benjamin

Sorry, Please correct Tim to Tom....iPhone typo!!!!

February 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

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