Why Are We Overweight?
Food Allergies, Gluten-Free Diets, and the Hormonal Cascade
that Leads to Depositing Fat
Why do we gain weight? Gluten intolerance makes us gain weight by causing us to eat rice. Allergic reactions cause weight gain in a variety of ways. With either condition, understanding “why” reassures us that weight gain is not due to character weakness and helps us with individualized ways of losing that weight which address the reasons we gained. Keep in mind also that for anyone, even those with no intolerances, heredity and environmental factors can predispose us to gain weight.
Food allergies can cause weight gain because eating a food to which you are allergic causes a HORMONAL CASCADE that results in storing rather than burning fat. When you eat a food to which you are allergic, your adrenal glands release hormones (cortisol and adrenalin, also called epinephrine) to cope with the allergic reaction. These hormones cause a breakdown of glycogen (stored carbohydrate) in the liver and increase your blood sugar level. The increased blood sugar stimulates the release of insulin. However, the high cortisol levels you are experiencing direct your cells to stop taking sugar up from the blood, in essence causing temporary insulin resistance. Because the glucose just released into the blood is not being taken up by the cells, more insulin is released, which results in an even higher insulin level in the blood. A high level of insulin activates the enzyme lipoprotein lipase which catalyzes the production of fats. Thus, excess insulin promotes storage of any fat we eat rather than using it for fuel. High insulin levels in the blood inhibit the activity of the enzyme triglyceride lipase which breaks down stored fat for use as energy. Thus, if you have chronically high insulin due to continual allergic reactions, you cannot burn your own body fat, and any fat you eat is likely to be stored rather than used for energy. In addition, if your insulin level is high, protein and carbohydrates you eat which are in excess of what you burn for fuel in the two hours after a meal are more likely to be converted to and stored as fat.
Food allergies also cause inflammation that makes the body’s master weight control hormone, leptin, ineffective. Although overweight people usually have very high levels of leptin, it does not do its job. This condition is called leptin resistance. If an optimally healthy, normal-weight person overeats, their leptin level rises, which increases their metabolic rate and decreases their appetite. If you have constant inflammation due to food allergies, this does not occur.
Another way that food allergies contribute to overweight is by causing food addiction or allergic cravings which drive you to overeat. When you eat a problem food, you have an immune response which often involves making antibodies that mediate the immune response to the food. Eating that food again ties up some of the antibodies and decreases allergic symptoms. Thus, some people unknowingly manage their allergy symptoms by getting regular “fixes” from eating their problem foods. If you suspect that you are having allergic cravings or notice that some foods make you feel better, you may be allergic to those foods, and you should pursue the diagnosis of potential new food allergies. You must eliminate all of your allergenic foods from your diet to control inflammation and lose weight. For help with this, visit www.food-allergy.org. If you are not sure of what all your food allergies might be, read more about diagnosing them and consider having provocation-neutralization testing or a blood test followed by elimination and challenge testing at home.
Weight loss is commonly experienced by people with undiagnosed celiac disease or gluten intolerance because the intestinal villi are damaged and food is not properly absorbed. (This can also happen with food allergies if the allergic reactions are occurring in and damaging the digestive system). When a gluten-free diet is instituted and the intestine heals, absorption improves and weight gain is expected because it usually is needed. Unfortunately, the weight gain often continues after the person has returned to a normal weight, resulting in overweight.
Many people on gluten-free diets gain weight to the point of being overweight. The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center reported on a study of 188 patients on gluten-free diets. At 2 years after starting the diet, 81% of them had gained weight and over 40% of them had a BMI (body mass index) of greater than 25, meaning that they were overweight.
Some people do not gain weight when they go on a gluten-free diet because they replace the wheat products and wheat-containing snacks in their diets with whole foods such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, protein foods, etc. The people who gain weight on a gluten-free diet are those who replace wheat products with similar rice products. Rice is the only grain that has a high glycemic index score in whole-grain form. In addition, rice is bland so commercially-made rice-based foods usually contain high amounts of sugar and fat to give them better flavor and may contain highly refined starches to help hold them together. Rice products are also much denser than wheat products. A piece of rice bread of a normal-looking size can contain twice or three times as many grams of carbohydrates as the same size piece of wheat bread. All of these factors together make commercially-made rice foods major contributors to overweight. Some of them contain ingredients that are as highly refined as the unhealthiest “normal” processed foods. For help with using grains and non-grain alternatives other than rice in a gluten-free diet, see Gluten-Free Without Rice.
However, you CAN lose weight if you avoid your problem foods and the carbohydrates you eat are mostly low on the glycemic index and are balanced with protein. Read more about eating the way YOUR body needs.