The Benefits of Rice and Pea Protein Powder and the Gluten-Free Diet

The Benefits of Rice and Pea Protein Powder and the Gluten-Free Diet

Protein is the building block for growth and repair of muscles, red blood cells, skin and other tissues, including the cells that line the small intestine. In celiac disease, after gluten has damaged the lining of the small intestine, one of the key factors in healing the gut and maximizing health is adequate intake of protein.1

Weight Gain

It is easy for a person newly diagnosed with celiac disease to find plenty of sources of protein in the gluten-free diet . One typically reaches for meat and cheese since in their natural, unprocessed forms these foods are gluten-free. Far less label reading is required. However, while fine in moderation, these foods also tend to be high in calories and fat. In addition, gluten-free products often tend to have more calories, sugar, and fat and less fiber than their gluten containing counterparts. Together, these factors contribute to the overall increase in weight that is seen in people with celiac disease on a gluten-free diet.2 In the protein category, dietitians who counsel those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity rely on foods and products that provide healthy sources of protein while limiting unhealthy or excess fat – these include lean poultry and seafood, dried beans and legumes, plain nuts and seeds, low fat dairy products, eggs, and gluten-free protein powders made from select protein sources. Many patients describe feeling very satisfied and full on high protein breakfast smoothies and have been able to avoid some of the more common high fat American breakfast protein choices, such as bacon, sausage, and fried eggs, etc. One smoothie recipe calls for milk or a dairy-free alternative (such as gluten-free rice, almond, soy or hemp milk*), 2 servings of fruit (one type of berry and either banana, mango, papaya or your choice), ground flax seed or chia seed**, and a serving of gluten-free labeled rice or pea protein powder that provides about 20 grams of protein per serving.

Remedying Weight Loss

Conversely, other patients who may be suffering from excessive weight loss before or after their diagnosis of celiac disease or NCGS can use gluten-free protein powder as a useful supplement to promote weight gain. The above smoothie recipe can be enhanced with 1/4-1/2 avocado, almond or nut butter, and/or organic coconut oil to add healthy calories with minimal volume increase.

Food Intolerance and Allergies

Confounding the weight maintenance issue in celiac disease and NCGS is the very common occurrence of coexisting food intolerances (such as lactose, soy, fructose or other carbohydrates) and/or allergies (dairy or any protein imaginable). Lactose, soy and fructose (or the other FODMAPs***) can cause gas, bloating, cramping, loose stool or diarrhea in a person with a sensitive digestive tract. Often patients are looking for gluten-free, lactose/dairy free protein powders and turn to rice or pea (if no issue with FODMAPs) protein powder because they tend to be more easily tolerated. Pea protein powder also offers up a hefty serving of iron.

Sports Nutrition

A recent sports study supports the hypothesis that higher doses of rice protein isolate (RPI) are comparable to equally high doses of whey (cow) protein isolate (WPI) for decreasing fat mass, increasing lean body mass, strength and power, and aiding in exercise recovery.3 In a randomized, double-blind, controlled study, 24 college-aged, resistance trained males were equally divided into two groups, receiving either 48 grams of rice protein isolate (RPI) or whey protein isolate (WPI) on training days (3 days/week for 8 weeks). RPI lacks the full essential amino acid profile of a complete protein such as whey. Study results indicate, however, that when protein is consumed in high doses, the difference in protein composition is not as relevant during periodized resistance training. The study suggests that RPI is as beneficial as whey in the measures reported above****. The authors note a short study term and lack of a non-supplemented control group as their limitations. Given that people with celiac disease or NCGS often have additional food intolerances or allergies that can limit their choices of protein sources, it is helpful to know that rice protein powder offers comparative benefits to whey which has long been known as the forerunner of protein choice in the athletic world. By: Melinda Dennis, MS, RD, LDN Nutrition Coordinator, Celiac Center Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Footnotes: * All non-dairy beverages must be labeled gluten-free for those with celiac disease. Soy can cause gas, bloating, loose stool or diarrhea in some people.
** Flax and chia seeds should be labeled gluten-free for those with celiac disease. *** FODMAPs; fermentable sugars; fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols
**** For more information on the study and the specific types of protein powders used, visit:, References:
  1. Decher N. Balanced and Delicious: A Healthy Gluten-Free Diet. In Real Life with Celiac Disease: Troubleshooting and Thriving Gluten-Free. Dennis M, Leffler D, eds. AGA Press, Bethesda, MD, 2010.
  2. Sonti R, Green PH. Celiac disease: obesity and celiac disease. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol 2012. April 10;9(5):247-8.
  3. Joy JM, et al. The effects of 8 weeks of whey or rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance. Nutrition Journal 2013, 12:86-XX.

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