Are Gluten-Free Foods Also Low Carb?

wiseGEEK Writer

Many foods that are gluten-free are also low in carbohydrates (carbs), but there are enough exceptions that the two concepts should not be seen as the same. Part of the confusion comes in defining what carbohydrates are, exactly. Wheat and wheat flour are some of the best known examples, and gluten-free foods typically avoid from these ingredients, but white sugar, starches, and flours made from other grains can be high in carbs while also being gluten-free. People who are looking to avoid carbohydrates usually need to look for foods that are specifically labeled as being low in this nutrient, and simply avoiding gluten is not enough.

Many vegetables are both gluten-free and low carb.
Many vegetables are both gluten-free and low carb.

The Difference Between Gluten and Carbohydrates

Gluten is a protein that is found most commonly in wheat, though related grains like barley and rye also contain it. Healthy people are usually able to process this protein as a part of normal digestion, but some individuals have sensitivities or allergies that prevent the body from breaking it down, in many cases leading to nausea and intestinal discomfort or other symptoms. Avoiding gluten entirely is usually the best way for these people to stay healthy, but adopting a low-carb diet is rarely ever required.

Sashimi is both gluten-free and low in carbohydrates.
Sashimi is both gluten-free and low in carbohydrates.

Wheat is a carbohydrate, but it is only one of many. Any food labeled gluten-free is guaranteed to contain no traces of wheat, barley, or related grains, though it could very well contain other carbs like white sugar or rice. As such, claiming that a gluten-free food is also a low carb food may be true in some cases, but it is in no way a universal rule.

Honey is gluten free but high in carbohydrates.
Honey is gluten free but high in carbohydrates.

People who are hoping to lose weight often adopt low-carb diets. Carbohydrates are “simple” energy sources, which means that they are converted quickly to glucose, a blood sugar. Forcing the body to get energy from more complex food sources, like meat or unrefined grains, often improves metabolic efficiency, which in turn can burn more calories and lead to weight loss over time. It can be tempting to think that wheat-free foods are diet-friendly, but a quick look at their health attributes shows that this not always the case.

Oranges and other fruits are naturally low-carb, gluten-free foods.
Oranges and other fruits are naturally low-carb, gluten-free foods.

Alternate Flours

One of the tricks that many food manufacturers use when making wheat-free foods is to substitute similar ingredients for those that must be avoided. Pasta can be made with millet or rice flour, for instance; cookies might use tapioca as a binding agent. These sorts of substitutes may actually be higher in net carbs than gluten-containing alternatives would be, which can make the resulting product not only not low carb, but actually carb-heavy.

Food made with gluten-free flours may actually have more calories.
Food made with gluten-free flours may actually have more calories.

Sugars and Sweeteners

Another thing that carb-conscious eaters must look out for is how foods are sweetened. Things like refined sugar and honey contain no gluten, but are very high in simple carbohydrates. Recipes that avoid gluten often call for higher-than-normal amounts of sweetener, usually to help improve the overall taste, since many people complain that foods that cut out the wheat and related products lack much flavor. Adding sugar can help make them taste better, but comes at a cost where both calories and carbohydrates are concerned.

Carbs in Fruits and Vegetables

Fruit is another example of a food that is gluten-free but not low carb. Nearly all fresh fruits contain large amounts of natural sugars, and levels are often even higher in dried varieties. People hoping to limit their carbohydrate intake, whether to lose weight or for some other reason, typically avoid or at least limit fruits. Those with wheat sensitivities don’t usually have this concern.

Potatoes are another example of a high-carbohydrate food that someone on a wheat-free diet could eat. Most vegetables, however, satisfy the criteria for both gluten-free and low carb eaters. Vegetables that are low in sugars and starch, like cabbage and broccoli, are usually the best candidates.

The Importance of Labeling

Most prepared foods that either contain no gluten or are low in carbohydrates are labeled as such by the manufacturer, and consumers must read carefully to be sure of exactly what they’re getting. Wheat-free foods that are also low carb almost always promote this fact. If only one attribute is named, it is usually safe to assume that the other does not apply.

Health Concerns and Risks

A dieter who is trying to limit his or her carbs by eating wheat-free foods is not likely to succeed, and may in fact gain weight. This can prove frustrating, but it is not usually harmful. The same is not typically true for a person who must avoid gluten for medical reasons because if he or she eats low carb foods thinking that they are gluten-free, he or she can get very ill. Most people who have to avoid wheat can’t tolerate it at all. A low carb cracker or a bread that has reduced wheat flour isn’t likely to be any better for someone with a gluten intolerance than one following a more standard recipe.

Potatoes are gluten free, but they are high in carbohydrates.
Potatoes are gluten free, but they are high in carbohydrates.

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Discussion Comments


Lactose is the sugar in milk and casein is the protein. You can take a pill (lactaid pills) to give you enzymes that your body has little or none of, if you lactose intolerant, to break down the lactose. There is no pill for the allergic reaction to casein.


I am allergic to wheat but I am also a type 2 diabetic. How can I eat healthy without being hungry? I am allergic to cheese but not all dairy. Every recipe that seems to be able to fill me up has either cheese or is high in carbs. The wheat allergy is causing my eczema to react badly if I eat it. What can I eat? Does anyone have any meal plans?


I am also gluten and casein intolerant, but I am soy and egg intolerant too. I have found goat milk is good because it doesn't have casein and it is 98 percent compatible to humans. The fats and proteins are much smaller and easier for our bodies to digest.

Try getting your goat milk fresh from a breeder/farm than from the store and raw if possible - and make your own cheeses, butters and such. Instead of soy, I use garam flour, also known as chickpea or garbanzo flour found in Mid-eastern or Asian markets (not to be mistaken with graham flour which is made from wheat). Eggs other than chicken seem to work out okay, for me. There's something about the protein in the chicken egg white that sets me off.

I also use coconut flour, nut flours, brown rice flour and I am always on the lookout for new flours. Don't be afraid to experiment. all that can happen is that you are feeding the trashcan more often.


As the Director of Endocrinology & Metabolism at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center, in New York City, I am compelled to say

that not all gluten free and dairy free products are safe for people with celiac. There are issues with starches present in "alternate"

grain and legume based flours and other ingredients such as soy sauce which may raise

sugar (blood glucose) levels.

As a physician specializing in this area for over 30 years I urge everyone who has diabetes or celiac to check the ingredients in every recipe or product and consult with your specialist before using any recipe or product. Also be very careful not to use the same utensils you use for gluten and dairy products.

There is a always a chance of cross contamination, and even if it is slight, some folks are sensitive to it with negative reactions. Remember, it may take days after the gluten is out of your system for your symptoms to clear up.

What's more, with this unnecessary suffering you may conclude that the problem is not related to diabetes or celiac and thus continue to cause even more problems.

Having said all that, please be aware that just a couple of weeks ago, one firm was closed

down and the owner arrested because of fraudulent labeling, not to mention causing damage to customer's health.

It is best to purchase USA made products that are endorsed and tested by a known and accountable entity.


There are other zero calorie/carb sugars that are more natural than aspartame and Splenda, such as erythritol (Zero) and xylitol (Keep xylitol away from dogs).


To April, casein sensitive. This can be daunting. It is also possible to do many very acceptable and even delicious substitutions. I've been baking with water instead of dairy products for years. If your recipe calls for sour milk or buttermilk, just add the amount of vinegar you would use to sour fresh milk to the water--works pretty well. Lately we've been experimenting with coconut milk and coconut cream as a dairy substitute for soups, curries, puddings, even rice pudding. Try some Thai recipes as guides. You can make chowders that are very good. One thing that is especially hard is finding a butter/margarine substitute, as butter has casein. Be sure to read labels, and make certain there is no whey, or other milk product, and no casein. We've just decided to flavor EVOO in a spouted bottle--herbs and garlic--and use that on bread. This is still in the experimental stage, so we don't know if it will clog up the spout, or go bad soon. Won't work with sweet spreads for your bread. But you can use coconut oil for this. It's a little strange on things like potatoes, but good for pancakes, etc. Go online for recipes, and for suppliers for less than your local health food store. Good luck. After awhile, you don't even miss milk. Cheese--that's another matter.


I was just diagnosed with Celiac in Feb. Now I just found out that I am sensitive to cow's milk (casein).

So, can anyone explain to me the difference between being lactose intolerant and being allergic to casein? I am totally confused.

Just when I have this "gluten thing" figured out, now its the milk. HELP!


so if gluten free food is high in carbs, how are we supposed to get the good carbs to keep us healthy and not gain weight?

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