As the popularity of the gluten-free diet as a weight-loss tool grows, some dietitians have pushed back, saying that gluten-free foods tend to be higher in calories and fat (and therefore less suitable for weight loss) than regular, wheat-based foods.
But is that assertion really true?
Generally speaking, no, it's not. When compared head to head, common gluten-free products such as bread, snacks, cookies and cakes actually have roughly the same number of calories, fat and carbs as their gluten-filled counterparts. Some have less and some have more, but on average, it's about equal.
As with any type of product (say, chocolate chip cookies), there's going to be a great deal of variation between brands and types ... so buyer beware, and always read the labels. But if you choose commonly available brands of gluten-free foods and, most importantly, don't eat any more of them than you would if they were gluten-filled you shouldn't be consuming any more calories than you would have if you stayed on a conventional diet.
Here's how the various products break down in calories, fat, carbs and fiber, with specific examples of each. When available, I've tried to compare gluten-filled and gluten-free products from the same brand (i.e., Betty Crocker) in order to make the comparisons as valid as possible.
Also, if you're looking for more information on losing weight by following the gluten-free diet, here are some good sources:
- Can the Gluten-Free Diet Help You Lose Weight?
- Five Tips for Gluten-Free Weight Loss Success
- Wheat Belly review
Calories in Gluten-Free Bread
Bread likely is the most common replacement gluten-free product purchased, so its calorie count is especially important.
My research shows that gluten-free bread may be slightly more calorie-dense than its gluten-containing counterparts in the range of 20 to 30 calories for a two-slice sandwich but it shouldn't be enough to concern you unless you spend your entire day eating sandwiches.
Here are three popular gluten-free breads, compared to other common gluten-based breads:
- Canyon Bakehouse 7-Grain Bread (winner of the 2012 About.com Gluten-Free Readers' Choice Award for Best Bread), contains 90 calories per 34 gram serving (about one slice), with 1 gram of fat, 18 grams of carbohydrate and 2 grams of fiber.
- Meanwhile, Roman Meal All-Natural 12-grain bread, contains 82 calories per 34 gram serving (about two-thirds of a slice), 1.4 grams of fat, 14 grams of carbohydrates and 1.4 grams of fiber.
- Udi's Gluten-Free White Sandwich Bread contains 70 calories per slice (about 24 grams), 2 grams of fat, 11 grams of carbs plus less than 1 gram of fiber.
- Meanwhile, one slice of Nature's Own Whitewheat Bread (about 26 grams) contains 55 calories, less than 1 gram of fat, 12 grams carbs and 2 grams of fiber.
- Rudi's Gluten-Free Cinnamon Raisin bread contains 100 calories per slice (about 37 grams)2.5 grams of fat, 18 grams of carbs and 2 grams of fiber.
- Meanwhile, Rudi's Organic Cinnamon Raisin bread contains 90 calories per slice (about 37 grams), 1.5 grams of fat, 19 grams carbs and 1 gram of fiber.
Calories in Gluten-Free Cereal
Many commonly available cereals are gluten-free think Chex and Post Fruity and Cocoa Pebbles. Therefore, the calories in a bowl of naturally gluten-free cereal will be the same regardless of whether you're following the gluten-free diet or not. Other cereals, like Kellogg's Rice Krispies, are made in both gluten-free and gluten-containing forms.
Here's how two common forms of cereal compare in their gluten-filled and gluten-free forms:
- Nature's Path Whole-O's (a substitute for Cheerios) contain 104 calories, 1.5 grams fat, 25 grams carbs, and 3 grams fiber per ounce.
- Meanwhile, Cheerios contain 100 calories, 2 grams of fat, 20 grams of carbs and 3 grams of fiber per ounce.
- Kellogg's Gluten-Free Rice Krispies contain 110 calories per 30 grams (about a cup), 0.5 grams fat, 25 grams carbs and less than 1 gram of fiber.
- Meanwhile, Kellogg's Original Rice Krispies contain 118 calories per 30 grams (a little more than a cup), zero grams fat, 26 grams carbs and less than 1 gram of fiber.
Calories in Gluten-Free Snack Foods
Some snack foods potato chips, for example are naturally gluten-free, so it doesn't matter if you're following the gluten-free diet; you won't be consuming any more calories by choosing them. Other snack food choices, such as pretzels and crackers, come in both gluten-filled and gluten-free versions.
Here's a rundown of the calories, fat and carbs in common snack products:
- Glutino pretzel sticks contain 120 calories per ounce, plus 3.5 grams of fat, 24 grams carbohydrate and 3 grams fiber.
- Meanwhile, Rold Gold Pretzel Sticks (a Frito-Lay brand) contain 100 calories per ounce, zero fat, 23 grams carbs and 1 gram of fiber.
- Snyder's of Hanover gluten-free pretzel sticks contain 112 calories per ounce, 1.5 grams fat, 24 grams carbohydrates and no fiber.
- Meanwhile, Snyder's of Hanover regular pretzel sticks contain 102 calories per ounce, 1 gram fat, 23 grams carbs and 1 gram of fiber.
- Schar Table Crackers (similar to saltines) contain 130 calories per 30 grams (about five crackers), 3 grams of fat, 24 grams of carbs and less than 1 gram of fiber.
- Meanwhile, Nabisco Original Premium Saltine Crackers contain 140 calories per 32 grams (about 10 crackers), 3 grams of fat, 24.2 grams of carbs and zero fiber.
Calories in Gluten-Free Cake Mix
As it turns out, the calories in chocolate cake mix don't vary much at all between the gluten-free and gluten-filled versions. Here's what I found:
- King Arthur Flour Gluten-Free Chocolate cake mix contains 280 calories prepared (1/14th package, 45 grams), plus 14 grams fat, 37 grams of carbs and 2 grams fiber.
- Betty Crocker Gluten-Free Devil's Food cake mix contains 260 calories prepared as directed (1/10th package, 43 grams), plus 12 grams fat, 36 grams carbs and 1 gram of fiber.
- Meanwhile, Betty Crocker Supermoist Devil's Food cake mix contains 280 calories prepared as directed (1/10th package, 43 grams), plus 14 grams fat, 35 grams carbs and 1 gram of fiber.
Calories in Gluten-Free Cookies and Mixes
Like gluten-free bread, store-bought gluten-free cookies tend to contain a few more calories than their gluten-filled counterparts ... but you'll only notice a real difference if you eat the entire bag in one sitting (not recommended regardless of what diet you're following).
Gluten-free cookie mixes, however, stack up pretty favorably calorie-wise when compared to their gluten-containing counterparts.
Here are the details for popular cookies and mixes:
- Aleia's Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip cookies (winner of the 2012 About.com Readers' Choice Award for Best Gluten-Free Cookies) contain 106 calories per 20 grams of cookies (about one and one-fifth cookies), plus 4.7 grams fat, 15 grams carbs and zero grams fiber.
- Pamela's Chunky Chocolate Chip cookies contain 104 calories per 20 grams of cookies (about five-sixths of a cookie), plus 5.2 grams fat, 12 grams carbs and less than 1 gram of fiber.
- Meanwhile, Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies contain 94 calories per 20 grams of cookies (about one and three-quarters cookies), plus 4.7 grams fat, 12.3 grams carbs and less than 1 gram of fiber.
- Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip cookie mix contains 130 calories if prepared as directed (25 grams per serving with 24 servings per package), plus 5 grams fat, 20 grams carbs and 1 gram fiber.
- Betty Crocker Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip cookie mix contains 150 calories if prepared as directed (27 grams per serving and 20 servings per package), plus 7 grams fat, 23 grams carbs and less than one gram of fiber.
- Meanwhile, Betty Crocker Chocolate Chip cookie mix contains 170 calories if prepared as directed (28 grams per serving with 18 servings per package), 8 grams fat, 21 grams carbs and less than 1 gram of fiber.
Nutrition Can Vary, So Always Check the Label
Even if calories are roughly equivalent between gluten-filled and gluten-free products, other nutritional aspects may be less than equal. For example, many gluten-filled products are made with enriched white flour (which contains iron and several important B vitamins, such as folic acid, niacin and riboflavin), while gluten-free product manufacturers are much less likely to use vitamin-enriched flour.
This may be changing: Glutino offers its Sensible Beginnings line of fortified cereals (which contain extra iron plus multiple vitamins), and conventional gluten-free cereals such as Chex and Gluten-Free Rice Krispies come fortified with vitamins and minerals. Gluten-free manufacturers are aware of this nutritional deficiency, and I would expect to see more enriched and fortified products on the market in the coming months.
In addition, many gluten-free product manufacturers are crafting gluten-free bread products with just as much fiber (if not more) than the heartiest of whole wheat buns.
However, since most gluten-free products aren't fortified or enriched with vitamins and minerals right now, you'll still need to keep an eye on your nutritional intake to make sure you're getting enough of important nutrients while following the gluten-free diet. But you shouldn't need to worry too much about calories in gluten-free food: in most cases, they're roughly the same as calories in gluten-filled products.