Gluten-Free Diet vs. Other Diets: Which Is Best?

Bowl of gluten free grains and vegetables

 Enrique Diaz / Getty Images

The gluten-free diet is designed and intended to treat two medical conditions: celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. But people who follow it may have additional priorities as well, such as weight loss or overall health improvement. Therefore, they need to know how it compares with other diets intended to meet those goals.

Generally speaking, it's possible to follow the gluten-free diet alongside many other diet programs. However, this approach — which can lead to weight loss success and to upgrades in your overall wellbeing — works better for some diets than it does for others. As you consider how to proceed, you should examine how the gluten-free diet stacks up against other popular diets so that you'll know which option might be the best fit for your plan.

USDA Recommendations

The gluten-free diet requires you to eliminate all foods containing one of the three gluten grains, which are wheat, barley, and rye. Generally speaking, this places off-limits a variety of commonplace foods, including conventional breads, cereals, and baked goods, since they all contain wheat.

Grain Requirements

At first glance, this restriction poses a potential problem with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) MyPlate recommendations. MyPlate divides foods into five separate food groups, including fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy, and grains. Grains should make up more than one-fourth of your total daily food intake, according to MyPlate.

Unfortunately, more than half of the USDA-recommended foods under the "grains" group contain wheat, barley, or rye. For example, highlighted foods include: whole wheat bread, whole wheat cereal flakes, whole wheat crackers, saltine crackers, flour tortillas, and white sandwich buns and rolls. All of these contain wheat, which you cannot consume on the gluten-free diet.

However, there are plenty of other USDA-approved grain choices you can use to fill your plate when you're gluten-free, including: brown rice, oatmeal, popcorn, corn flakes, and white rice. When following the gluten-free diet, focus on gluten-free whole grains, and you should have no trouble meeting MyPlate's daily grain consumption recommendations.

Fruits and Vegetables

Other parts of MyPlate — fruits, vegetables, protein, and dairy — are easy to make gluten-free, although you may need to tweak your food choices some.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten-free. The USDA recommends that you fill half your daily "plate" with fruits and vegetables (with more emphasis on vegetables than on fruit), so if you stick with fresh, unprocessed produce, you won't need to worry about gluten at all. If you decide to try processed fruits and vegetables with more than one ingredient, you'll need to check ingredients lists to make sure the product in question is gluten-free (many of them will be).

Protein

MyPlate calls for filling slightly less than one-quarter of your plate with protein sources. For many people, this means eating meat, poultry, and fish. As with fruits and vegetables, if you shop for fresh, plain cuts of beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and fish, you won't have any problem sticking to the gluten-free diet. Beware of pre-seasoned products you might find at the meat counter, since the sauces and seasonings used frequently aren't gluten-free.

Of course, "protein" doesn't necessarily mean "meat." You also can get ample protein from vegetarian sources, such as beans and nuts. These are generally gluten-free, although you need to watch out for gluten cross-contamination. You also can consider buying gluten-free veggie burgers to meet your USDA protein allotment.

Dairy

The USDA recommends consuming dairy-based foods every day to make sure you're getting enough calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and protein. Recommended foods include: skim milk, yogurt and frozen yogurt, and hard and soft cheeses such as cheddar, Swiss, and brie.

Non-milk based "dairy" products that make the MyPlate list include soy milk and soy milk yogurt; these will come in handy for people who steer clear of milk-based products in addition to avoiding gluten-containing products.

Many dairy products (including the non-dairy soy milk and soy milk yogurt products) are gluten-free, including most milk, soy milk, almond and other nut milks, yogurt, frozen yogurt, and cheese. Just make sure to check the ingredients list on any product you're considering purchasing.

Calories

Although it's possible to lose weight when following the gluten-free diet, the diet itself isn't intended to be a weight loss diet — it's intended to be medical treatment for people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. So you shouldn't start the diet thinking you'll automatically lose weight on it.

That being said, it is possible to lose weight while eating gluten-free. However, your weight loss will depend on how many calories you take in, plus how many calories you burn each day. If you consume fewer calories than you burn each day, you'll lose weight (yes, it's that simple).

Variety

It's fairly common for people who are new to the gluten-free diet to complain that they have nothing to eat, but in fact, the diet allows for a huge variety of foods. Yes, you can't eat most conventional grain-based foods, including conventional bread, pasta, and many kinds of cereal, but this might expand your horizons, not limit them.

For example, if you miss having regular spaghetti or lasagna, try a new type of gluten-free pasta, or even something a bit different, such as quinoa. If you're longing for a cookie, experiment with a flourless cookie recipe. Many types of ethnic cuisines are naturally gluten-free or close to it, so consider visiting a Thai or Indian restaurant (although many Italian restaurants also have a good gluten-free selection).

Similar Diets

It can be tricky to compare the gluten-free diet blueprint with other diet plans since the gluten-free diet's nutritional and health impacts will depend on how it's implemented. It's possible to eat a gluten-free diet that's filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and healthy fats. It's also possible to eat a gluten-free diet that's mainly junk food.

Still, there are several eating plans that mesh well with the gluten-free diet. People who are looking for a weight-loss program should be able to find one that works for them while still remaining gluten-free, and people who want a healthier way of eating can accomplish that goal, as well.

Mediterranean Diet

The gluten-free diet, when followed in a way that emphasizes mainly whole, unprocessed foods, shares significant overlap with the highly-rated Mediterranean diet, which has been named "Best Diet Overall" from U.S. News and World Report.

The Mediterranean diet features fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish, and olive oil. Dairy is included, but in small amounts, with the emphasis on cheese and yogurt. The diet highlights whole, unprocessed foods—that's why photographs showing Mediterranean diet foods are so colorful and attractive. It's simple to follow a gluten-free Mediterranean diet: all you need to do is replace whole wheat (and other forms of wheat, such as farro) with gluten-free whole grains. Try brown rice for stir-fry dishes, and quinoa in grain-based salads and in other vegetable dishes (these quinoa stuffed peppers are delicious). It's also possible to find gluten-free orzo pasta if you're interested in making traditional orzo dishes, such as this Mediterranean orzo salad with shrimp.

Vegetarian Diet

A vegetarian diet isn't necessarily similar to a gluten-free diet: people who eat gluten-free can eat meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy, as long as those foods don't include any added gluten ingredients, while people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet can eat wheat, barley, and rye, which are grains and not animal products. However, many people follow both diets simultaneously, and it's not uncommon to have restaurants and grocery stores group them together into one overall "health food" category.

According to U.S. News and World Report's Best Diets Rankings, the vegetarian diet is the 11th best diet overall and the 12th best for weight loss.

Following both a gluten-free and a vegetarian diet at once is tricky since you're ruling out many common foods, including all animal products and most conventional grain-based products. You'll need to replace the animal products with gluten-free vegetable protein sources. When doing so, double-check that any meat substitute products such as veggie burgers you eat are gluten-free (gluten is a vegetable-based protein, of course, and some meat substitute manufacturers use it in their products).

Keep this gluten-free vegetarian food list handy to cross-check foods and ingredients to see if they're allowed on both diets. Gluten-free vegetarians need to be especially careful to get enough of several nutrients that tend to be low on the gluten-free diet.

Low-Carb Diets

There are many different types of low-carb diets, some of which (like the Atkins diet and the South Beach diet) are designed purely for weight loss, and others of which (the ketogenic diet) are used for weight loss but may also be used to treat certain medical conditions. All of the diets have one thing in common: they restrict your intake of carbohydrates.

Since the gluten-free diet also eliminates many common carbohydrate-based foods (all conventional wheat-containing products), it's a simple matter to follow a gluten-free, low-carb diet. In fact, the popular Atkins diet is primarily gluten-free, especially in its first three phases, and the South Beach diet also easily supports a gluten-free diet.

The trick with following any low-carb diet is to steer clear of carbohydrate-intensive snack food choices, such as chips and cookies. You can get into trouble with gluten-free versions of these products just as easily as with wheat-containing versions of these products — either one will sabotage your weight loss plans.

Many low-carb recipes also are gluten-free. For a true low-carb entree, you can try this creamy Southwest chicken (made with real heavy cream), or for something less heavy, Asian broccoli stir-fry (just make sure to use gluten-free soy sauce). Low-carb desserts often make use of almond flour and flaxseed meal, both of which are gluten-free; try making low-carb lemon bars and super-chocolatey low-carb miracle brownies.

Paleo Diet

The paleo diet attempts to duplicate — as much as possible — how people ate tens of thousands of years ago before humans had developed agriculture. Foods that are allowed on the paleo diet vary but generally include meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and a small amount of fruit.

Foods that are not allowed when you're following the paleo diet include all grains and legumes (because it's believed Stone Age humans did not eat them), dairy products (since animals weren't domesticated, there wasn't any milk), and any processed foods. Some variations of the diet do allow small amounts of dairy foods, but grains are strictly forbidden. Since no grain products and no processed foods are allowed on the paleo diet, the diet is naturally gluten-free.

People tend to follow the paleo diet for general health reasons, although the diet also can be used as a weight loss program. However, it's quite a restrictive diet—even more restrictive than the gluten-free diet, since it eliminates foods that are allowed on the gluten-free diet. It also can be expensive and inconvenient to follow long-term.

Low-FODMAP diet

FODMAPs are types of carbohydrates found in a wide variety of foods. Some medical research has shown that a diet low in these particular types of carbohydrates ("FODMAP" stands for "fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols") might improve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in people who are sensitive to FODMAPs. Researchers also have suggested that people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity would benefit from a low-FODMAP diet.

All gluten grains are high in FODMAPs. Therefore, a low-FODMAP diet drastically reduces or eliminates wheat, barley, and rye. However, it goes further and eliminates various other foods — for example, onions, garlic, peaches, nectarines, lactose-containing dairy products, beans, cashews, and pistachios — that also are high in FODMAPs.

If you're strictly gluten-free but find you still have digestive symptoms like bloating and diarrhea, you might want to talk with your doctor about whether a low-FODMAP diet could help. It's not always a simple diet to follow, because it eliminates so many foods in addition to gluten grains, but there are plenty of low-FODMAP recipes available to help you plan meals.

Weight Watchers

Weight Watchers, another high-ranking diet on U.S. News and World Report's list, shares somewhat less overlap with the gluten-free diet than the other diet programs listed. Nonetheless, the two diets have enough in common that it's perfectly possible to do Weight Watchers while also remaining gluten-free.

When you follow Weight Watchers, you're encouraged to aim for slow weight loss while adapting healthy, lifelong eating habits. For people who have celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, the gluten-free diet also is a lifelong endeavor.

Since Weight Watchers is extremely flexible, eating gluten-free is just a matter of substituting gluten-free products, including bread and pasta, for any wheat-containing products you decide to eat as part of the program. Weight Watchers also caters to those who are gluten-free by providing gluten-free menus that fit within the program's restrictions.

Whole30 diet

Whole30 isn't billed specifically a weight-loss diet; instead, it's a month-long elimination diet that's billed as a way for you to recharge your immune system, improve your digestion, and jump-start weight loss.

The Whole30 diet cuts out all grains along with many additional foods, including: sugar, alcohol, dairy, legumes, and some food additives. Therefore, it incorporates the gluten-free diet, but goes well beyond gluten-free.

Although Whole30 focuses on healthy foods — unprocessed meats, poultry, and fish, fresh vegetables and some fresh fruit, eggs, and natural fats — it omits legumes, which can provide needed fiber (especially when you're eliminating all grains). It's possible to follow the Whole30 diet program in addition to remaining gluten-free, but you'll likely find your choices of foods are quite limited.

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Article Sources

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  2. U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News 2019 Best Diets Rankings, "Best Diets Overall." Jan. 2, 2019

  3. Morreale F et al. Are the Dietary Habits of Treated Individuals with Celiac Disease Adherent to a Mediterranean Diet? Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases. 2018 Nov;28(11):1148-1154.

  4. Mayo Clinic, "Paleo diet: What is it and why is it so popular?"

  5. University of Virginia Health System, "Low FODMAP Diet"

  6. Whole30.com, "The Whole30 Program Rules"

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