What's the Difference Between a Gluten-Free and Low-Carb Diet?By Carole Anderson Lucia Reviewed by Briana Rodriquez, R.D. Science-Backed
If you’re like many people, you may be wondering whether adopting a gluten-free diet could make you healthier and maybe even help you lose weight in the process. After all, visit any grocery store and you’ll see entire aisles devoted to gluten-free foods, many with tantalizing claims of health and vitality.
At the same time, you’ve undoubtedly heard the talk — and science — behind low-carbohydrate diets (keto, anyone?). Maybe you’ve even tried a low-carb diet meal plan yourself and had success at dropping weight.
It does get confusing, though — are gluten-free diets the same as low-carb diets? After all, both avoid or limit some carbohydrates, and both have a reputation for helping with weight loss. But as it turns out, there’s more to the story than that.
Read on for common questions about the two types of meal plans and find out if one is better than the other for helping promote health and weight loss.
What you need to know about gluten-free diets
Q: What is a gluten-free diet?
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A: A gluten-free diet is one that eliminates all foods that contain gluten, proteins that help foods, such as bread, hold their shape by “gluing” ingredients together.1 The primary sources of gluten are wheat, barley, rye and triticale, a newer grain that is a cross between rye and wheat. People who follow a gluten-free diet do not eat any of these grains.
Gluten can be found in likely places, such as bread, pastries and pasta, but in less likely places, too, including salad dressing, food coloring, beer, malt vinegar and soy sauce. These products need to be avoided to maintain a gluten-free diet.1
Even though gluten-free diets avoid certain grains, they can (and should) include other sources of healthy complex carbohydrates, including fruits, vegetables, peas, beans, and whole grains such as brown rice, corn and quinoa.
Q: Are gluten-free diets popular?
A: They certainly are. In 2013, almost 30% of U.S. adults reported that they were aiming to limit their intake of gluten or avoid it altogether.2
And that number may be even higher now. The experts at Harvard Medical School3 cite a statistic from the Consumer Reports National Research Center that found 63% of Americans believe a gluten-free diet has the potential to improve their physical or mental health.
Q: Should certain people follow a gluten-free diet?
A: Yes. People who have a condition called celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder in which consumption of gluten causes inflammation and damage to the small intestine — must follow a gluten-free diet, the Celiac Disease Foundation reports.4 If a person with celiac disease continues to eat gluten, serious health problems can develop over time, including bone weakness, skin irritation, lactose intolerance and nerve damage, according to the Mayo Clinic.5
Research6 also suggests that people who experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating and digestion problems after eating gluten — a condition known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity — may benefit from a gluten-free diet, even if they have tested negative for celiac disease.
Luckily, celiac disease is relatively rare: Beyond Celiac, a patient-advocacy and research organization,7 estimates that 1 in 133 people in the U.S., or approximately only 1% of the population, have celiac disease. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health,8 meanwhile, estimate that up to 6% of people have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Q: I don’t have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Can I still benefit from a gluten-free diet?
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A: Perhaps not. You may have heard that eating gluten might lead to inflammation or other problems among people without celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. But several studies have debunked these concerns — and some have actually found the opposite.
For instance, one large study on people without celiac disease found that people who ate less gluten had a higher risk of heart disease than those who ate more — which was likely influenced by their reduced consumption of heart-healthy whole grains.2 Because of these risks, the researchers recommended against gluten-free diets for people without celiac disease.
Furthermore, according to the Harvard School of Public Health,8 numerous studies have found that eating 2-3 servings of whole grains per day, including whole wheat, can have beneficial effects, significantly lowering the risk of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
Reducing your gluten intake may also reduce your intake of other essential nutrients. A small study of people without celiac disease6 showed that participants who followed a gluten-free diet had less-than-optimal intakes of certain micronutrients and fiber, as well as an increase in their fat intake. Other studies have also found that many gluten-free foods may be deficient in several other nutrients, including folate, niacin and riboflavin; many are also higher in trans fats and salt compared with foods that contain gluten.6
Q: Is a gluten-free diet also low-carb?
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A: Not necessarily. Just because you exclude gluten-containing grains from your diet doesn’t automatically mean you’re eating fewer carbohydrates — especially if you replace those grains with other types. And in some cases, you could actually be increasing your carb intake by switching to gluten-free grains. For instance, 1 cup of all-purpose flour contains 95 grams of carbohydrates,9 while the same amount of rice flour contains 127 grams.10 So if you substitute rice flour for all-purpose flour in your cooking, you could be introducing more carbohydrates into your diet.
If, on the other hand, you’re filling up on more fruits and vegetables to replace foods that contain gluten, your diet may indeed be lower in carbohydrates.
Q: Can a gluten-free diet help me lose weight?
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A: Most experts seem to agree that gluten-free diets are not terribly helpful when it comes to weight loss.
The Cleveland Clinic,17 for instance, says “there’s absolutely no evidence” that simply switching to a gluten-free diet will make you lose weight. The experts at Harvard Health8 agree, adding that because people may think of gluten-free foods as being healthier, they may eat more of them, actually leading to weight gain.
Q: Does Jenny Craig offer a gluten-free diet?
A: Not currently. We do offer a reduced-carb menu, however. Many people without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity choose this option, especially if their DNA indicates they may process carbohydrates less efficiently than other people.
What you need to know about low-carb diets
Q: What is a low-carb diet?
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A: Unlike a gluten-free diet, which excludes certain grains, a healthy low-carb diet doesn’t eliminate any specific types of carbohydrates. Rather, it reduces the amount of all carbohydrate-rich foods, including grains of all types (rice, bread, pasta, flour, etc.) and sugar-laden foods such as candy, pastries and sugar-sweetened beverages.
At the same time, a low-carb diet — which is sometimes also known as a high-protein, low-carb diet meal plan — focuses on eating moderate amounts of high-protein foods such as eggs, lean protein and low-fat dairy, moderate amounts of healthy fats and plenty of non-starchy vegetables, while limiting the intake of fruit.
Q: Can a low-carb diet help me lose weight?
A: It very well might. Research is increasingly showing that low-carb diets can be helpful for weight loss — and that they can help with weight maintenance as well. Although there is some controversy on the subject, some researchers believe that low-carbohydrate diets may produce a greater calorie burn compared with higher-carb diets.12
Regardless of which diet you’re following, your food choices matter most when it comes to losing weight. If you want to start a low-carb diet to lose weight, you’ll want to eat plenty of non-starchy vegetables, a moderate amount of lean protein and a small amount of healthy fats daily. And as with any diet, you’ll want to watch your portion sizes. Jenny Craig’s reduced-carb menu plan includes perfectly portioned meals with the right balance of carbs, proteins and fats — so you don’t have to worry about counting, measuring or prepping!
Q: Are there other benefits to a low-carb diet?
A: In addition to having the potential to help people lose weight and then maintain it, the experts at the Harvard School of Public Health13 report that low-carb diets may have other health benefits as well. For instance, they say that low-carb diets have been shown to lower triglycerides and increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which can lead to better heart health.
And the Mayo Clinic14 says that in addition to weight loss, low-carb diets may help prevent such conditions as metabolic syndrome and high blood pressure, or improve them if they’ve already developed.
So what are the main differences between a gluten-free and low-carb diet?
- Eliminates all sources of gluten
- It’s vital for those with celiac disease and may benefit individuals with sensitivities to gluten
- Most experts agree that gluten-free diets do not usually result in weight loss
- Reduces an individual’s intake of carbohydrate-rich foods
- Focuses on eating plenty of non-starchy vegetables, moderate amounts of protein and a smaller amount of healthy fats, fruits and whole grains
- May result in weight loss and other health benefits
If you suspect you may be sensitive to gluten, make sure to check with your health care provider.
A gluten-free or low-carb diet: Which is right for you?
As you contemplate whether a low-carb or gluten-free eating plan is right for you, keep in mind that what makes a diet the most successful is the ability to adapt it to your lifestyle and to maintain it during the weight loss phase and over the long term. And, of course, you want it to be as healthy as possible, and to include foods that not just nourish your body, but that you actually enjoy. We hope we’ve helped you sort it all out!
Want to learn more about how Jenny Craig’s low-carbohydrate menu can help you achieve your weight loss goals? View our menu plans today to get started!
Carole is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California who specializes in health and wellness topics. Her work has appeared in Parents, Fit Pregnancy, Mom & Baby, Yahoo News, Viv magazine and Lifescript. She's won several national awards for her work including a National Science Award and two National Health Information awards. A frequent contributor to Jenny Craig’s Blog, Healthy Habits, she enjoys gardening, spending time at the beach and adopting far too many rescue animals in her spare time.
Favorite healthy snack: jicama dipped in homemade hummus
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
This article contains trusted sources including scientific, peer-reviewed papers. All references are hyperlinked at the end of the article to take readers directly to the source.