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.
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 similar 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.
- Compare that to Roman Meal All-Natural 12-grain bread (a wheat-based bread), which 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. The Canyon Bakehouse product contains 16 more calories for two slices, but has slightly less fat and slightly more 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 gluten-filled 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. The Udi's product definitely contains more calories and more fat, but it contains fewer carbs (important if you're following a low-carb diet program).
- 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 (Rudi's wheat-based version of the same product) contains 90 calories per slice (about 37 grams), 1.5 grams of fat, 19 grams carbs and 1 gram of fiber. The gluten-free variety does contain 10 extra calories and 1 extra gram of fat per slice, but it also has more fiber.
The bottom line: If you choose your gluten-free bread carefully, you probably can find one that pretty much matches your previous favorite gluten-filled selection in calories, fat and fiber content.
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 gluten-free substitute for Cheerios) contain 104 calories, 1.5 grams fat, 25 grams carbs, and 3 grams fiber per ounce.
- Meanwhile, Cheerios (which are not gluten-free) contain 100 calories, 2 grams of fat, 20 grams of carbs and 3 grams of fiber per ounce. That's a difference of 4 calories and 0.5 grams of fat per serving ... not something you're likely to notice.
- 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 (which are not gluten-free) 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. The gluten-free version contains eight fewer calories and a tiny bit less carbs, but a smidgen more fat. Neither cereal is a good source of fiber.
The bottom line: Gluten-free and gluten-filled cereals are pretty comparable in terms of calories, fat, carbs and fiber content.
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 (which are gluten-free) contain 120 calories per ounce, plus 3.5 grams of fat, 24 grams carbohydrate and 3 grams fiber.
- Meanwhile, Rold Gold Pretzel Sticks (a gluten-containing 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 (which are wheat-based) contain 102 calories per ounce, 1 gram fat, 23 grams carbs and 1 gram of fiber. Obviously, gluten-free pretzels contain more calories and include more fat than regular pretzels, but
- Schar Gluten-Free 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 (which contain gluten) have 140 calories per 32 grams (about 10 crackers), 3 grams of fat, 24.2 grams of carbs and zero fiber. In this case, the gluten-free crackers have fewer calories but about the same amount of fat as the wheat-based type.
The bottom line: Gluten-free pretzels may be a bit more fattening than the gluten-y varieties, but some gluten-free crackers may be less fattening. It's a case of buyer beware.
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 (the gluten-filled variety) contains 280 calories prepared as directed (1/10th package, 43 grams), plus 14 grams fat, 35 grams carbs and 1 gram of fiber. In this case, the mixes are remarkably similar, although the King Arthur gluten-free mix contains a bit more fiber.
The bottom line: You can't blame the calories or the fat in gluten-free chocolate cake for your weight gain, since the nutritional totals are nearly identical to those in gluten-filled cake mixes.
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 (gluten-free to less than 5 parts per million) 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, gluten-filled 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. In this case, the gluten-y chocolate chip cookies are a little less fattening than the gluten-free varieties.
In the mixes:
- 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 (the mainstream wheat-based 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.
The bottom line: When it comes to chocolate chip cookies, the gluten-free store-bought varieties may contain more calories and fat than the gluten-filled brands, but the reverse is true for cookie mixes. If calories and fat are a concern, you may need to make your own.
Losing Weight Gluten-Free
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
You might also be interested in how different diet programs will work if you're gluten-free:
- Can You Do Atkins If You're Gluten-Free?
- Weight Watchers and the Gluten-Free Diet - A Good Combination?
- Is the South Beach Diet Gluten-Free-Friendly?
- Can You Follow Both Jenny Craig and the Gluten-Free Diet?
- Does Nutrisystem Offer A Gluten-Free Option?
Product 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.
- Read more: Nine Vitamins To Boost If You're Gluten-Free
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: some are higher and some are lower than their gluten-filled counterparts, but if you eat a variety of foods, the differences will even out.