Breaking Down the Benefits and Downfalls of a Gluten-Free Diet

November 21, 2018

Over the past few years, a handful of trends have substantially altered how people eat, from the start of the locavore movement to the conversation surrounding the potential impact of GMOs on health. Another trend that shows no sign of slowing down is the adoption of the gluten-free diet. Not long ago, most people had not even heard of gluten, yet the idea of eliminating it from diets gained momentum quickly. Many people have probably considered eliminating or at least limiting gluten in their diet, but what is the potential benefit of doing so?

What Is Gluten, and Why Are So Many People Trying to Avoid It?

Gluten is simply a protein in several different types of grain, including wheat, rye, and barley, which means that it’s found in some of the most ubiquitous foods in America, from bread and pasta to cereal and pizza. Importantly, gluten does not provide humans with any essential nutrients, so eliminating it from a diet does not directly cause any kind of deficit. Some people have a physiological inability to process gluten. People with a condition called celiac disease experience an immune reaction when they eat gluten. This immune reaction results in inflammation that damages the digestive tract. Up to 1 percent of the population has this condition, and these individuals must follow a gluten-free diet to maintain their health.

However, according to a survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, nearly two-thirds of American believe a gluten-free diet could improve their health, and about one-third have already cut back on the gluten in their diet. This large number necessarily includes many people who do not have celiac disease. Outside of these individuals who must avoid gluten in their diet, a growing number of people describe themselves as “gluten sensitive” and report that they experience symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal pain when they consume gluten. Some research links this sensitivity to a wheat allergy, and the term “non-celiac gluten hypersensitivity” has entered the scientific lexicon. However, more research is needed to truly understand this ailment.

The Potential Downsides of Embracing a Gluten-Free Diet

From a scientific perspective, people with celiac disease should definitely avoid gluten, and those who have a sensitivity to it and feel better when they eliminate it from their diet should continue to do so. However, what about the people who easily tolerate gluten in their diet? Currently, there is no compelling research to suggest that these individuals will experience better health by limiting or eliminating gluten from their diets. It is true that scientists may one day discover that all people are better off avoiding gluten—but the same could be said of any number of substances, and this is not the current consensus among medical professionals.

Furthermore, a gluten-free diet may come with some risks that people do not immediately realize. For example, gluten-free foods often have more sugar and fat alongside less essential nutrients like iron and folic acid. A number of studies have linked gluten-free diets to weight gain and obesity, even among people with celiac disease. The other major consideration is a financial one. Foods without gluten—special types of bread and pasta made with alternative flours, for example—tend to come with a higher price tag. After all, most foods associated with healthy trends, such as organic produce, cost more money, in part because people are willing to pay more for them. However, organic foods actually offer some benefits: they contain fewer pesticides and often represent the most environmentally friendly produce option. Gluten-free foods, on the other hand, do not offer health benefits to most people.

What People Need to Know about Becoming Gluten-Free

People who wish to cut gluten out of their diet should understand that the protein appears in a number of products they may not initially consider, such as soy sauce, natural flavorings, medications, and even toothpaste. Furthermore, because of the issues stated above, people can be at risk of nutritional deficiencies unless they understand the implications of their diet change. Those switching their diet should take a gluten-free multivitamin and multimineral supplement. (A number of supplements contain gluten, so it is important to check.) One of the biggest risks is for women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, as vitamin B9, or folic acid, plays a key role in preventing birth defects.

The other concern that people need to keep in mind is the fact that whole wheat provides much of the dietary fiber in the American diet, and this nutrient is necessary for the digestive system to function effectively. Most people in the United States do not get enough fiber as it is, so removing wheat can cause serious problems if it’s not replaced with a good substitute. Luckily, many grains without gluten provide ample dietary fiber, including brown rice and quinoa. In addition, beans, fruits, and vegetables provide fiber.

Generally speaking, people who follow a gluten-free diet should keep close track of their fiber intake to ensure that they do not exacerbate any digestive issues they’re trying to address with their diet change. That’s why it’s so important to discuss a gluten-free diet with a doctor or other healthcare professional before making the change.