The Holy Grail: Gluten-free . . . but low-carb

Thanks to the inventiveness of food manufacturers and people with celiac disease, there is no shortage of foods and recipes devoted to the gluten-free concept. Gluten-free cookies, pretzels, pizza, etc., all marketed to the gluten-free community.

Problem: The cornstarch, potato starch, tapioca starch, and rice starch–dried, powdered starches–are among the very short list of foods that increase blood sugar higher than even wheat products. Blood sugars go higher after gluten-free foods than after table sugar, higher than candy bars.

Repeated high blood sugars trigger repeated high insulin which, in turn, generates insulin resistance. This is followed by growth of visceral fat. We can no longer call it a “wheat belly”–“gluten-free belly” somehow lacks a clever ring, but that is precisely what happens. Repetitive high blood sugars also provoke the process of glycation that leads to cataracts, arthritis in both weight-bearing and non-weight-bearing joints, heart disease vis small LDL creation, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, and accelerated aging.

At least once a week, a patient will come back to the office who has failed to hear me say (or see it on my office handout on how to eat wheat-free) that gluten-free foods should be avoided. Instead, they eliminate wheat and seek out gluten-free foods. They fail to lose weight, often gaining a few pounds instead; fail to reduce measures of blood sugar like fasting glucose and HbA1c; fail to reduce heart disease-causing small LDL particles and triglycerides. Sure, they may obtain relief from arthritis, asthma, and intestinal complaints since they’ve avoided gluten, gliadin, and wheat lectins, but the awful blood sugar-increasing effects of gluten-free foods essentially booby trapped their efforts.

So the real answer is to follow an eating program that is wheat/gluten-free but low-carbohydrate. I commonly tell most adults that they should limit daily carbohydrate intake to 50 grams per day or less (less if extremely insulin resistant and/or carb-sensitive; more if very fit, lean, and relatively carb-insensitive–more on these distinctions to come or see my many, many posts on this in my Heart Scan Blog). A gluten-free sandwich alone would blow this limit out of the water.

So, yes, wheat- and gluten-free . . . but low-carb for full health benefits.

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Comments & Feedback...

  1. Renfrew

    That’s a good principle, to eat low-carb and gluten-free.
    I am seeing myself restricted in my food choices though. I can only see vegetables and fish/meat.
    How about some recipes for this kind of regimen?

    • Serena,,,,; these are my fave sites for low carb gluten free recipes. (Not all sites are 100% gluten free, but most of the recipes on these sites are.

  2. As a book reviewer I was able to download a galley of Wheat Belly in early July to my Kindle. I devoured the book since I immediately recognized myself as someone who not only has a wheat belly, but who has diabetes. I consulted with my endocrinologist and he gave me the ok to proceed with your diet, saying if he saw good results, he may use it with his other patients…he wants to read the book as well.

    I am giving it a real test, since my second week eating wheat-frfee was spent at The Clearing Folk School in Door County. They are known for their great cooking including daily doses of homemade bread. I went prepared with my own breakfast quiche made with almond flour, your carrot cake recipe for desserts and a flaxseed focaccia. They cooperated with giving me low carb desserts, and even making gluten free pancakes for me. ( I went easy on them for I have read your caution against gluten-free products). I followed that up with a trip with friends to their lake home in Michigan taking all kinds of tapenades,and wheat-free foods.I figured that if I waited until after these two events, that would just be another 3 weeks of eating badly.

    Results : I’ve lost 8 pounds and have had 7 days where I took no morning insulin and lessened insulin a couple of other times.

    I’m sold on this…right now it means a lot of blood testing and cooking new kinds of food, but hopefully I will see even better results. I’ve been posting on my own blog about your book.Coincidentally, my youngest daughter independently discovered she has a wheat intolerance…that it was probably the cause of her stomach problems for the last 20 years. I am endlessly telling friends about it, so thank you, Dr. Davis for writing the book…I plan to give the books to friends and family I think should read it. I’m looking forward to receiving the recipes from you.

    • Hi, Ricki–

      Spectacular! You are a living example that this approach is not only incredibly health-restoring, but doable and practical.

      I’ve spent these last several months working on yet more recipes to make this approach as satisfying and varied as possible.

      Could I have your permission to post your comments in the Wheat Belly Success Story page?

  3. Malia

    Hi Dr. Davis,
    Last year I had my gall bladder removed and needed the old fashined surgery because it had totally crystalized. I haven’t completely healed from that surgery and my waist line has dramatically expanded. I always had a flat tummy so this has really surprised me. I am going to remove all wheat after Thanksgiving (I am going to use all of our wheat products in the freezer for stuffing). Then when it is out our of the house, I will start fresh.

    Six years ago, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. I was able to keep my blood sugar down to an average of 109 by always pairing any carbs I ate with a much larger quantities of protein. For example, I could eat a slice of peanut butter toast if I also ate a boiled egg with it. Or, I could eat 2 corn tacos if I doubled the meat and had refried beans. There were some things I just couldn’t eat but others I could if I paired it with enough protein…

    My question is after the initial weight loss (about 50 lbs) and when I am looking to sustain this as a lifestyle, in your opinion, can I use the food pairings I used during pregnancy (minus the wheat products)?

    • It sounds to me, Malia, like you will still be overexposed to carbohydrates, despite the pairings. Since you’ve experienced at least some of your life in prediabetes, then you may have compromised pancreatic insulin function. My feeling: Extend the life of your pancreas for as long as possible by not making it run marathons with carbohydrate consumption.

  4. Rachelt

    I loved your book. I’ve always known that I did best on a low carb diet, but I recently (and this is the second time I’ve done this…) decided that I needed to supplement my diet with gluten free foods for “variety.” Unfortunately, all they’ve done is packed on an extra ten or fifteen pounds. I literally saw a light bulb go off over my head when I realized that I need to be both gluten free AND gluten product free.
    In addition to gaining weight, I will also note that eating too many gluten-free processed foods also really messed up my digestive system to the point where I would have horrible constipation one day and horrible diarhhea the next. When I eat a clean low carb gluten free diet, I have none of these problems.
    It’s back to low carb, gluten free for me. I decided not to wait until New Year’s…I am starting today!

  5. Fogey

    Ouch! Been gluten-free for a year now and got relief from a lot of digestive problems and congestion, and mental alertness has improved. Am, however, using all the flours you mentioned and a lot of prepared products as well. This is my second try at a GF diet. The first go round more than a decade ago, I was munching rice cakes constantly and put on weight. This time, I am doing the Carbo-Addicts Diet and keeping pretty steady. In a nutshell, you have NO carbs (less than 5 grams) for breakfast and lunch then all the carbs you want at dinner. As long as I finish dinner in less than an hour, I don’t gain weight. I grow my own apples so total low-carb diet is just out of the question. Besides, almonds are very expensive compared to potato or corn starch.

    • Dr. Davis

      The question is whether the concepts they promote hold and it has no effect on blood sugar.

      It sounds like these people are trying. One easy test will be whether blood sugar goes up after consuming, say, 2 slices of the bread.

      At some point, I’d like to give this a try.

    • Dr. Davis


      Please tell us more.

      Precisely which of their breads didn’t you like? And, by “stinks” do you mean it smells bad?

      • Lynn

        I have bought from them twice and everything went straight to the trash. The first was just GF and was crumbly and tasted bad. Being new to GF I thought maybe it was just me. I tried the new low carb they had out, one from coconut flour the other from almond flour. When they arrived they were wet almost to the point of slimy. They also went to the trash.

  6. Luke Williams

    Dr Davis,

    My wife and I have both read your book, and are now trying to live a wheat-free lifestyle. The only speed bump is that she is now pregnant, and we are worried – and others have commented – that eating completely wheat free for the duration of the pregnancy may cause our child to have a gluten intolerance or celiacs disease. Is this a likely outcome? I would hate to think that our decisions will affect whether our child will be able to eat bread or birthday cake, or to experience pancakes or potato chips! Obviously we want our children to be healthy, but I still believe they should be able to make the choice themselves and eat the odd indulgence!

    Your response would be most grateful!

  7. Jamie

    EXACTLY!!!! This is the problem I’m up against. At this point, I’m not even allowed to have fruit, btw, b/c my body can’t process the sugar. I am searching EVERYWHERE for recipes that I can eat (I’m getting VERY sick of animal flesh – red meat, chicken, fish, etc) And, I”m also restricted from certain veggies that interfere with my thyroid meds (cruciferous). But my biggest issue is..I can’t find any snack food, or anything that doesn’t need to be refrigerated that I can just take on the road with me and keep in my bag incase I’m out and get really hungry, or if I”m just in the mood to eat something snacks and isn’t made up of a dead animal. I am being told I can’t have brown rice or any rice for that matter, I can only have Quinoa. I can’t realistically maintain this diet and my sanity for the rest of my life. I need help! My nutritionist is just telling me to google Paleo recipes and adjust the veggies i can’t have, etc. but that doesn’t solve my issues when my problem is how SICK I am of only eating meats. Paleo cookies and gluten free, ‘sugar’ free cookies, still have too many carbs (and it’s totally NOT sugar free b/c it has fruit sugars or agave, all which I’m not supposed to have), so it’s just like there is NOTHING out there for me. I read this article and am hoping that since you see the problem….you have some solutions!

  8. Cecilia

    I suffer from gluten intolerance and I have been off gluten for about 2 years. During the course of these 2 years I have gained 35lbs. I am now trying low carb but I am allergic to tree nuts and several fruits any ideas on snacks that meet my diet restrictions and that are low carb?