Is a gluten-free diet healthy?
Going gluten-free has become a popular trend in dietary habits. We can prove it – just look at the increasing amount of gluten-free options available in both your grocery stores and local restaurants! If you look even closer, you may also notice that a niche of educated health and wellness companies are emphasizing their gluten-free labels, allowing gluten-free consumers to avoid this protein in all products, not just food.
But, if you have the choice, is going gluten-free actually the healthier route? Maybe not. Read below to find out why going on a gluten-free diet can actually harm your health.
When gluten truly causes damage
Individuals with celiac disease, a type of digestive autoimmune disorder, absolutely have to stay clear of gluten because of the way their immune system reacts negatively to this protein, resulting in damage to the small intestine. This reaction causes a range of symptoms in addition to poor nutrition absorption, which can lead to further complications in the future. Even a small amount of gluten (like a single bite of bread!) – found in wheat, barley, rye, but also hidden in items such as sauces, soups, and even beer— can be enough to trigger this immune response. This is the reason companies manufacturing products like probiotics, for example, will stress their gluten-free labels: it allows those with celiac disease piece of mind when it comes to purchasing products beyond food and beverage.
How gluten-free can be unhealthy
Believe it or not, cutting out gluten from your diet if you do not have celiac disease can actually prevent you from taking in key nutrients and minerals, such as B vitamins, which are found in common gluten-rich bread and cereal products. You need vitamin B6 for proper infection-fighting processes within the body while vitamin B9, also known as folic acid, is necessary for pregnant women to reduce the risk of birth defects. You may also become deficient in vitamin D, which has several key benefits, including promoting bone health and preventing disease. However, you should consult your physician to know for certain whether you are in fact deficient and if adding other foods rich in these vitamins or picking quality supplements is the best course to take.
Experts from Harvard University also explain that avoiding gluten can also impact your digestion. In order to have proper digestion, fiber is very important. Many Americans are already below the ideal intake of fiber and with whole wheat being an important source of this nutrient, going gluten-free may affect your digestive health unless you make a conscious effort to consume other high-fiber foods in place of the ones you avoid.
Gluten-free benefit myths
While going gluten-free is obviously crucial to the health of those with celiac disease, Gluten.org explains that there is a lack of evidence supporting any health benefits of the gluten-free diet for those without it.
Take weight loss. Don’t get us wrong— you might hear a lot of stories from individual people who will swear they dropped 10 pounds going gluten-free. Though this might be true, it could just be the result of a diet change— cutting out bread and pasta can do wonders for that number you see on the scale! On the other hand, for someone who swaps these tasty carbohydrates with calorie-dense gluten-free alternatives, the result might actually be weight gain. The verdict? Going gluten-free can positively affect your weight but it is likely not your best bet at guaranteed weight loss.
Similarly, a 2017 study published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences found that while going gluten-free “may be beneficial in weight management,” there was little evidence of a connection between this diet and heart disease or metabolic syndrome (a combination of high blood pressure, excess weight, and high cholesterol).
Are you sensitive to gluten?
Still, you might come across a number of people who swear they feel “so much better” since removing gluten from their diets.
However, these individuals may in fact have undiagnosed celiac disease or perhaps what is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). More is known about celiac disease which is diagnosed with a blood test, while NCGS is not as clearly established of a condition and is only considered only when celiac disease is ruled out. NCGS causes similar symptoms of discomfort as celiac disease, but does not cause intestinal damage and experts are not entirely clear if gluten is the only culprit.
Lastly, some people might have a wheat allergy, which would require them to avoid wheat (but not necessarily gluten coming from other sources) to feel good.
It is important that if you think you may have some kind of gluten intolerance to go see a physician before cutting gluten out of your diet. Once someone goes on a gluten-free diet for a long period of time, it becomes difficult to determine if any condition is prevalent.
Just because everyone is talking about it, doesn’t mean it’s the healthiest option for you! Like many diets, the gluten-free diet has been popularized by trending influencers and the viral world of google and social media. But, will cutting out the wide array of gluten-rich foods out of your everyday diet really give you the benefit of a healthy life? Maybe. Or maybe not.