Removing gluten, the protein found in grains like wheat and rye, is one of the biggest trends in America right now. Proponents of the gluten-free diet claim it can do everything from reducing bloat to helping you lose weight, and even keep you from getting sick! No wonder the number of people who are gluten-free has tripled since 2009. But the prevalence of PWAGs — people without celiac disease avoiding gluten — is a fairly modern phenomenon. Is this growth the sign of a fundamental shift in our understanding of nutrition or a fad diet that’s captured the public’s imagination?
The Problems with the Gluten-Free Diet
Many PWAGs switch to the gluten diet due to the promise of a healthier option. Whether it’s because they heard it sheds pounds or helps with digestion, there are many intriguing reported benefits. Unfortunately, there’s little scientific evidence to back this up. In fact, some would say the diet could be terrible for you.
While a gluten-free diet is important for people with celiac disease who suffer from gluten sensitivity, it’s not a complete diet. Grains, which contain gluten, are rich in healthy vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Gluten-free foods tend to be made with refined grains, which have the gluten processed out. By cutting grain out of your diet, you’re potentially missing out on nutrients like iron, folate, calcium, and zinc, among others. Fiber, which wheats are a major contributor of, is especially important to your health.
There’s also the misconception that gluten-free automatically equals healthier. In many instances, this is quite the opposite. Many gluten-free snacks are actually less healthy than their natural counterparts. To quote Meghan Holohan of Today.com:
Products that boast that they’re free of something, whether fat-free, sugar-free or gluten-free, often have extras added to make them more palatable.
To make up for the lack of gluten, these foods are often higher in calories, which is counterproductive to any weight loss. To make matters worse, one study found that gluten-free foods had more fat, sugar, and salt than the gluteny alternative, while also being considerably more expensive.
The healthy feeling that sometimes comes with a gluten-free diet can be attributed to many other things. For one, a gluten-free diet requires you to be more aware of what you’re eating. Awareness alone can help you lose weight and promote feeling better by cutting out unhealthy foods. This is backed up by dietician and author Katherine Tallmadge, who told LiveScience that:
…the feeling of wellness that many attribute to the removal of gluten from their diets is more likely due to the absence of refined carb- and sugar-laden snacks and desserts that happen to contain the protein.
It is possible to eat healthy on a gluten-free diet. This means avoiding artificially gluten-free foods and sticking to naturally gluten-free ones, like fruits or proteins.
We also should note that the reported links to autism, epilepsy, and schizophrenia are, for the most part, bunk. While there are suggested links between celiac disease and epilepsy or schizophrenia, there is no evidence that gluten is behind these diseases. In fact, most links between the three are tangential at best, connecting to something that’s related to gluten or celiac disease.
The Good of Gluten
The faults aren’t only with gluten-free foods, however. Gluten itself can be healthy. Yes, the protein that’s so maligned can actually help you out. One 30-year-long study from the American Heart Association showed links between gluten intake and lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Another study, this time over the course of 25 years, found that gluten could decrease chances of heart disease. Finally, the 2015 study that declared red meat was a carcinogen also found that grains could decrease your risk of cancer.
These are only a few notable studies, but they show that gluten isn’t the ultimate dietary evil that it’s often made out to be. Instead, like many proteins and foods, there are health benefits and potential risks that you should keep in mind.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is truly your only choice. Ingesting gluten can make you really sick and lead to dangerous complications down the road. If you continue eating gluten, it may even lead to multiple sclerosis or certain cancers.
The other option, if you feel you may have a gluten sensitivity, is to speak with your doctor. There is currently no test for gluten sensitivity. Instead, like many allergies, your doctor will run an exclusion test, meaning they’ll rule out other options. Once other allergies or causes are ruled out, your doctor will discuss a gluten-free diet.
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Ultimately, what we’ve learned while researching this subject is this — if you want to try a gluten-free diet, go for it. If you do it right, there’s not a ton of risk. But if you don’t have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, you won’t get much out of it either.
There’s one piece of advice you should heed before starting, though. Speak to your doctor first. They’ll be able to discuss whether such a diet is necessary or, if you choose to move forward, how you can safely follow your new diet.