A study of Finnish celiac patients shows that after maintaining a gluten-free diet for one year, the Body Mass Index (BMI) of both underweight and overweight patients improved.
Over time, researchers have seen a shift in the weight of people newly diagnosed with celiac disease. In the past, people were typically underweight at the time of diagnosis, however the opposite is now true; people are often overweight or obese when diagnosed.
There has been a growing concern that people will gain more weight after adopting the gluten-free diet. According to researchers, these concerns are not unfounded as weight gain can occur once the small intestine begins to heal and patients are properly absorbing nutrients. To determine if the gluten-free diet had any impact on weight in underweight, normal, overweight, and obese patients, researchers conducted a study of 698 adults with biopsy-proven celiac disease. They also examined other factors that could contribute to weight loss or gain in newly diagnosed patients, such as:
Overall, researchers discovered the gluten-free diet had a positive impact on weight in underweight, overweight, and obese people. After maintaining the diet for one year, 69 percent of underweight people gained weight and 18 percent of overweight people lost weight, as did 42 percent of obese participants. Analysis of the survey responses showed the only additional factor that impacted weight loss or gain was the person’s level of knowledge and understanding of the gluten-free diet. The participants who experienced positive impacts on their weight reported they possessed a deep understanding of the gluten-free diet. A young age at diagnosis was also slightly associated with improvement in BMI, which may suggest that implementing a new dietary lifestyle is easier at a younger age. Other factors, such as dietary counseling and their mode of clinical presentation at diagnosis (i.e. symptom- versus screening-detected) did not have any impact on weight.
Similar findings regarding improvement in BMI were reported in a 2010 study by the Department of Medicine at Sound Shore Medical Center of Westchester in New Rochelle, New York. It is important to note that this 2010 study identified expert dietary counseling to be an important factor in the weight management of persons with celiac disease, a finding that this Finnish group did not observe.
While the study results are encouraging for those recently diagnosed with celiac disease, it is important to note that this study does not mean a gluten-free diet is right for everyone. The study was only conducted with people diagnosed with celiac disease, not the general population. The full study report can be found in the European Journal of Internal Medicine.