Celiac weight gain is a completely normal body response. The body pre- and post- diagnosis naturally gains weight for a few of reasons.
Firstly, weight change is normal following any life change. Life change like a celiac disease diagnosis.
Additionally, everyone’s body responds to damage and healing pre- and post- diagnosis; some people might experience larger bodies and other people might experience smaller ones. Again, it all depends on your unique body.
So let’s talk about celiac disease weight gain, why it might happen, and how to deal with it.
First, let’s get one thing straight, celiac weight gain is never as simple as someone is just eating too many gluten-free processed foods or eating too much. This accusation is fatphobic and fails to address the complexities behind body size. Things like diagnoses, stress level, movement, sleep, hydration, relationship to food, body image, metabolism, genetics, eating environments, financial status, and more play into body size.
Second, weight is not a behavior. Meaning someone’s weight does not define someone’s habits or well-being. You can’t look at someone and define their eating habits or health based on how much space they take up, (as much as people like to try to do it).
Third, well-being and health are so much more than just a number on a scale. And they are subjective and up to the individual to define for themselves. We can thank diet culture with celiac for this oversimplification of health, body size, and food.
All that said, there are a few reasons why celiacs gain weight. These reasons include the small intestine is healing, the body is renourishing itself, continued exposure to gluten, being able to enjoy food again, and the re-establishment of hunger/fullness cues.
So, let’s dive into the specifics of why people with celiac disease gain weight and what to do about it.
Before we dive into why you might gain weight with celiac after diagnosis, let’s talk celiac weight gain before diagnosis.
Unfortunately, celiac disease has a stereotype of being an underweight white woman’s disease. This stereotype leads to weight and race bias with testing (I’ll leave the diversity talk for another post).
Because of the weight bias surrounding celiac, many people in larger bodies may be failed to be tested for celiac, face disbelief from healthcare providers about their diagnosis, and more. This is because providers can fail to remember: celiac can impact people of all body sizes and colors.
Not only can celiac present as malnutrition and malabsorption in smaller bodies but also in larger bodies. In fact, weight gain can be a response to malabsorption. If your body knows it’s not absorbing essential energy and nutrients, it might react by trying to hold onto ANYTHING it can. Resulting in weight gain.
In summary, weight gain before a celiac diagnosis can occur in response to malnutrition, intestinal damage, and dysregulated hunger/fullness cues to compensate for malabsorption.
And weight gain may continue for other reasons after diagnosis…
The first reason behind celiac and weight gain after diagnosis is that your small intestine is healing. Meaning, you’re finally able to absorb nutrients and re-nourish your body. Essentially, your body is moving out of a malnourished state.
Let me explain. At diagnosis, you may be deficient or lacking in nutrients (which the body interprets as starvation). As your gut heals, your body may respond by absorbing and storing nutrients causing weight-gain.
This storing of nutrients is done as a survival mechanism by your body. It’s meant to not only renourish you but to prepare for another potential period of starvation. Your body does this because your body is smart; but not smart enough to know that you now know how to prevent it from starving again.
This is entirely normal. This weight gain can be a sign that your body is healing from celiac – yay!
The second reason behind celiac weight could be that you’re finally able to enjoy food again and thus are finding delicious gluten-free foods to enjoy.
When I was first diagnosed, it seemed like everything upset my stomach. After figuring out what was causing it, I suddenly wasn’t as afraid of foods. Meaning I was able to enjoy food again – and there is nothing wrong with that.
In fact, food is meant to be enjoyed.
Enjoying food again is a natural process of switching to a gluten-free lifestyle (you might also mourn other foods but that’s for a different post). If you find yourself eating more and enjoying more, that’s a beautiful thing and it should not be shamed.
Let your body learn that it can trust food again and don’t fear the few extra pounds that might come along with rebuilding that trust. And if you’re worried about the implications of eating and enjoying food more, working with a celiac dietitian can help make sure you’re doing so healthily.
The third reason behind celiac weight gain is that gluten is still getting into your diet. Gluten exposure with celiac can cause continual damage to your small intestine. This damage can lead to malabsorption which can cause weight gain in two ways.
First, it can cause weight gain as your body tries to hold on to what ever nutrients and energy it can. Second, it can cause weigh gain by increasing your hunger cues to try to compensate for the nutrients missed.
If this is the case, you’ll have other indicators to support this theory. Such as celiac follow-up testing coming back positive despite eating gluten-free.
If you need help completely eliminating gluten from your diet, a celiac dietitian can help.
Reason number 4 behind celiac weight gain might be that you’re trying to re-establish and trust your hunger and fullness cues.
Often before diagnosis, hunger and fullness cues are masked by GI distress. The nasty symptoms associated with consuming gluten when you have celiac disease can make it difficult to tune into the cues of your body. For example, celiac bloating and constipation can mask hunger and other symptoms can mask fullness.
As your gut heals and you experience fewer symptoms, tuning into your hunger and fullness cues will become easier. With that, you might also notice weight gain as you begin to nourish your body as it desires.
Additionally, often many people with celiac feel a deep sense of
betrayal by their body. Because of this it can be hard for celiacs to
listen to their body cues like hunger and fullness, causing them to become dysregulated and
trigger overeating and binging. This can lead to weight gain as well.
If your hunger and fullness cues are dysregulated for whatever reason, working with a celiac dietitian can help you get them back on track.
Weight gain with celiac disease can also be related to other common co-occurring conditions. Thinks like hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s could be present and playing into weight gain as well.
If you’re concerned, definitely check-in with your doctor to make sure nothing else is going on.
A lot of people who gain weight following their diagnosis, want to lose it again. My response to those people would be, why? Is it truly because you want to be healthier? If it is, I’d argue that health and well-being can be measured in ways OTHER than your clothing size.
Some questions to ask yourself:
I’d also argue that having healed your small intestine from potentially years of damage would suggest that you are healthy. The weight gain in response to finally being able to nourish yourself would suggest health. Something I’ve been doing more recently to cope with my weight gain is reminding myself that “I’ve gained weight and I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been”.
For me, losing weight would be fighting against my body’s needs and desires. Instead, I focus on other things that can help support my body and health goals. Like engaging in enjoyable physical activity, getting enough sleep, limiting stress, and honoring my hunger and fullness cues.
That being said, I respect your choice if you choose to pursue weight-loss. In that case, I’d encourage you take inventory of your current habits and ask yourself what is realistic to change in support of your goals.
Do you need help dealing with your weight change? Check out my coaching services.