Going gluten-free may not be such a good idea


It is simply amazing how the gluten-free market exploded within the past 5 years.  This tidal wave of gluten-free popularity set off by food blogs, social media hashtags and the food industry’s extensive labeling of foods as gluten-free or not, has amassed such a following that it is estimated one in five Americans try to include gluten-free foods in their diet.  Yet, most of those people pulling gluten-free foods off grocery store shelves don’t have celiac disease and or even have a sensitivity to wheat. In fact, experts estimate that only one percent of Americans have celiac disease. That means there are a whole lot of people eating gluten-free who really don’t need to. 

The main explanation for people without celiac disease choosing gluten-free foods is usually the perception that following a gluten-free diet is healthier.

The truth is, it really is not any healthier since a gluten-free diet can lack vitamins, minerals, and fiber and they are often more expensive. 

So, who absolutely must follow a gluten-free diet?  Any person who has been diagnosed with celiac disease through an intestinal biopsy will need to follow a gluten-free diet for the rest of their life.  Celiac disease is a condition caused by an abnormal immune response to gluten.  Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye and it can damage the lining of the small intestine by causing inflammation. When the damage occurs, it reduces the ability of the intestinal lining to absorb nutrients which can lead to problems such as anemia, osteoporosis, or growth delays in children.

Now a recent study is stating that going gluten-free if you do not have celiac disease, may actually be harmful to your health.  Published in the British Medical Journal, researchers looked at survey data from over 110,000 health professionals in the U.S. who kept detailed food records of their food preferences every four years between 1986 and 2010.  What was mainly looked at was the impact of the participant’s diet and how it affected the development of coronary heart disease. 

Revealed from the study was that following a gluten-free diet has no health-related benefits for people who do not have celiac disease.  In fact it could actually be harmful to one’s heart health when a person does not have the disease.  The reason?  Whole grains containing gluten which include wheat, barley, rye and also includes spelt, kamut, triticale and all varieties of wheat, are loaded with heart-protecting benefits.  Avoiding whole grains when you don’t have to can end up being detrimental to your health.

After adjusting for various risk factors, the researchers found no significant association between consuming foods containing gluten for a long period of time with an increased risk of heart disease.  In fact, it was actually found that those who consumed an increased intake of gluten showed an association with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease.

Why whole grains can be good for the heart

The key to eating grains is to choose grains that are considered whole and not refined.  A whole grain will contain the entire parts of what the grain is made up of – the bran, germ and endosperm. Examples of whole grains include whole wheat, oats/oatmeal, rye, barley, corn, popcorn, brown rice, wild rice, buckwheat, triticale, bulgur (cracked wheat), millet, quinoa, and sorghum.

A refined grain is a grain that has been milled (ground into flour or meal) that removes two parts of the grain, the bran and germ.  This gives the grain a finer texture and improves the shelf life but the process also removes some important nutrients such as B-vitamins, iron, and dietary fiber.  Examples of refined grains include wheat flour, enriched bread and white rice.

Choosing and eating whole grains are the way to go as they are excellent sources of dietary fiber. This fiber may help improve blood cholesterol levels and lower risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.  Whole grains are also important sources of B vitamins which are needed for biological functions, folic acid which helps form new cells and can prevent birth defects, iron used to carry oxygen in the blood, magnesium which is involved in over 300 processes in the body, and selenium needed for a healthy immune system and regulating thyroid hormone action.

In conclusion

Because this study was observational, the researchers were not able to make a conclusion as cause and effect of their results.  But it does suggest that avoiding gluten may lead to a lower overall intake of whole grains that contain valuable nutrients for good health and should not be encouraged. 

Since the only people who truly benefit by eating gluten-free foods are those who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, the rest of us without it do not need to follow such a dietary pattern. Why give up healthy whole grains when you don’t have to?