Is Gluten Free Low Carb?
Curious if gluten free and low carb are the same? If keto is gluten free? Read this ...
The Relationship Between Gluten and Carbs
Is gluten-free low carb?
Is gluten-free keto?
Do "gluten free" and "low carb" go hand in hand? No.
Of course, gluten-free foods can be low carb but not all gluten-free foods are low in carbohydrates.
Gluten, a mix of proteins found in wheat grains, helps provide structure, texture, and flavor to bread, pizza dough, pasta, cereal, and other grain-based foods that may also contain high amounts of carbohydrates.
Low-carb diets, such as keto, paleo, Atkins, and carnivore, tend to be low in or free from gluten since gluten is most commonly found in carbohydrate-rich foods. That said, gluten-free diets and gluten-free foods aren’t necessarily low in carbohydrates.
What Is Gluten?
A protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, gluten acts as a binding and extending agent used to retain moisture, improve texture, and enhance the flavor<sup>1</sup> of foods.
The rise in popularity of low-carb and gluten-free diets makes it easier than ever to follow a gluten-free lifestyle, as food manufacturers now produce a variety of gluten-free bread, pasta, crackers, cereals, beers, cookies, and more with comparable taste and texture to their gluten-containing counterparts.
Does Gluten Consumption Impact Health Negatively?
Why avoid gluten? People with Celiac disease must cut out gluten to avoid symptoms of diarrhea, bloating, gas, and fatigue, as well as longer-term complications of anemia, osteoporosis, and damage to the lining of the small intestine.
Those who run to the restroom after eating gluten and don’t test positive for Celiac disease may have Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity<sup>2</sup> (NCGS), an inflammatory disorder with gastrointestinal issues similar to irritable bowel syndrome. It’s harder to test for NCGS than Celiac or a wheat allergy, as no specific clinical biomarkers are present<sup>3</sup>.
Most people who suspect they’re sensitive to gluten try elimination diets that remove gluten for a period of time before adding it back in to see if symptoms return.
Even people who don’t experience severe or moderate reactions to gluten or wheat may avoid it because they believe gluten is unhealthy. Many proponents of gluten-free diets or grain-free, low-carb eating plans suggest that gluten triggers inflammation, autoimmune diseases, and changes to the gut microbiome<sup>4</sup>.
Some data suggest that following a gluten-free diet may help alleviate gastrointestinal symptoms<sup>5</sup> in people with skin conditions, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, type 1 diabetes, and neurologic disorders. But, research identifies few benefits to eating gluten-free for healthy people without gluten intolerant disorders or disease.
One small study conducted on 10 healthy people found that numbers of healthy gut bacteria decreased, while numbers of unhealthy bacteria increased<sup>6</sup> when participants cut out carbohydrates with gluten from their diets for one month.
Another review of scientific studies concluded that a gluten-free diet does not fully restore the optimal gut microbiome makeup and function<sup>7</sup>.
A different review of scientific literature revealed that few substantial benefits exist for people who don’t have Celiac disease, NCGS, or sensitivity to gluten; rather, potential drawbacks include possible nutritional deficiencies and burdensome social and financial impact<sup>8</sup>.
Does Gluten Impact Blood Sugar?
Gluten by itself may not raise blood sugar, but many foods that contain gluten can raise blood glucose levels. Grain-based foods that contain gluten can also contain a high amount of carbohydrates. High-carb foods—with or without gluten—can raise blood sugar after consumption, as they release higher amounts of glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream than lower glycemic foods.
Interestingly, a link exists between diabetics, people who have trouble regulating blood sugar normally, and Celiacs, people who can’t tolerate gluten.
Diabetics have difficulty self-regulating glucose in the bloodstream. In people with type 1 diabetes, the beta cells in the pancreas produce very little or no insulin, a hormone needed to push sugar (glucose) into the cells to make energy.
Celiac disease and type 1 diabetes share similar genetic backgrounds; this explains in some ways the high prevalence of patients with both diseases<sup>9</sup>. A research review suggests that in patients with a genetic predisposition to Celiac disease and type 1 diabetes, a gluten-free diet may preserve beta-cell function<sup>10</sup>.
Insulin sensitivity, where the cells are more responsive to insulin and use blood glucose more efficiently, improved when 17 study participants at risk for type 1 diabetes followed a gluten-free diet for six months but decreased when they went back to their normal diets. This study’s findings support the idea that a gluten-free diet may help preserve beta-cell function<sup>11</sup> in high-risk individuals.
Carbohydrates: How Carbs Impact Health and Blood Sugar
Carbohydrates are sugars, starches, and fibers found in milk products, fruits, vegetables, grains, and sweeteners. Carbs break down into sugar, or glucose, in the blood and are converted into energy.
High-carb foods and drinks raise blood sugar shortly after consumption. In healthy people, when a rush of glucose enters the bloodstream, the beta cells in the pancreas release an amount of insulin that’s proportional to the amount of glucose in the blood. Insulin directs the glucose into the cells so it can be used for energy.
Any unused energy gets moved to the liver and muscles for future use. When the liver and muscles stores reach capacity, any unused glucose gets stored in fat tissues.
When glucose gets stored repeatedly and doesn’t get used by physical activity or intermittent fasting, fat storage accumulates and weight gain happens. A habitual long-term cycle of eating and drinking more sugar than you need and can burn is associated with detrimental health outcomes such as insulin resistance<sup>12</sup>, metabolic syndrome<sup>13</sup>, obesity<sup>14</sup>, type 2 diabetes<sup>15</sup>, and cardiovascular disease<sup>16</sup>.
Gluten-Free vs. Low-Carb Diets for Weight Loss
In patients with Celiac disease, following a strict gluten-free diet did improve body mass index<sup>17</sup> in the participants of one study. That said, another study on overweight participants with Celiac disease showed that participants gained weight<sup>18</sup> after following a gluten-free diet.
While little published peer-reviewed research exists to support the efficacy of a gluten-free diet for weight loss in healthy people without Celiac disease, it’s worth noting that simply removing gluten from the diet without any other changes is unlikely to result in weight loss.
Myriad celebrities, wellness influencers, and regular people tout the effectiveness of low-carb diets for weight loss. Yes, people have lost weight following low-carb lifestyles like the ketogenic, paleo, Atkins, and carnivore diets. But, similar to gluten-free diets, limiting or removing carbohydrates without any other changes may not lead to sustainable weight loss.
Research doesn’t show definitive support for restricting or eliminating carbohydrates as a means to lose weight. One review of low-carb diets found that caloric restriction and duration of the diet<sup>19</sup> were associated with weight loss, but not the restriction of carbs specifically.
Another study attributed weight loss and weight maintenance to high protein and not low carb<sup>20</sup> in research that compared four types of diets with normal, high, and low amounts of carbs and protein.
A review of low-fat diets versus low-carb diets for weight loss found effectiveness to be dependent on the individual’s glucose metabolism<sup>21</sup>. Those who could handle glucose normally appeared to lose the most weight on a low-fat, high-carb diet. Prediabetic people achieved more success when their diets included low-glycemic, high-fiber whole grains. For overweight and obese diabetics, reduced carbs and relatively higher protein and fat proved beneficial for weight and glycemic control.
FAQs About Gluten-Free vs. Low Carb
Does gluten-free have fewer carbohydrates?
Some gluten-free foods may also be low-carb foods, but this isn’t always the case. For example, a four-ounce chicken breast<sup>22</sup> contains zero grams of carbs and no gluten. A sweet potato<sup>23</sup>, on the other hand, contains no gluten but has 26 grams of carbs. Two slices of Udi’s whole grain gluten-free bread<sup>24</sup> contain 22 grams of carbs.
The takeaway: Gluten-free pizza, gluten-free pasta, gluten-free bread, gluten-free flour, and more are not necessarily low in carbohydrates. Gluten-free and low carb are not synonymous.
Read food labels carefully if you want to avoid gluten and high amounts of carbs. In general, the most nutritious and cost-effective way to follow a gluten-free diet: Eat whole foods like fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood, fish, dairy if tolerated, beans, seeds, nuts, and legumes.
Gluten-free grains<sup>25</sup> and starches include:
- Buckwheat groats
- Gluten-free oats
- Nut flours
Is gluten-free keto?
Many keto-friendly products substitute nut flours for regular flour that contains gluten, but just because a food is labeled Keto Certified or keto-friendly doesn’t mean it’s also free of gluten. Again, read labels carefully.
The ketogenic diet emphasizes low amounts of carbohydrates, generally moderate amounts of protein, and higher amounts of fat. Many whole foods that are keto-friendly are also naturally free of gluten.
Is keto gluten-free?
No, the ketogenic diet itself is not gluten-free. But people who eat a ketogenic diet typically limit their daily intake of carbs to 50g.
Most of these carbs come from fresh fruits and vegetables. Since gluten is typically found in grains (like wheat, rye, and barley). So if you're following a keto diet and avoid grains, it should be simple to stay under 50g of carbs per day.
Many people on the keto diet do indulge in some gluten-free grains like quinoa, spelt, or teff. You can also look for gluten-free products made with almond flour or coconut flour—these options are usually delicious and keto-friendly!
Is gluten-free low-calorie?
Gluten-free foods are not necessarily low in calories. For example, a medium stalk of celery<sup>26</sup>, which happens to be gluten-free, contains 6 calories; it’s definitely a low-calorie vegetable. Three-quarters of a cup of Glutino Gluten-Free Brown Rice Pasta<sup>27</sup> contains 200 calories, which is 35 more calories than three-quarters of a cup of spaghetti<sup>28</sup> that contains gluten.
Low-calorie, gluten-free foods exist. The most abundant and nutrient-dense options come from whole foods.
Is low-carb healthy?
Yes, a low-carb diet can be healthy! For a lot of people, reducing carbs leads to weight loss, better blood sugar levels, or both. Read more about low-carb diets here.