Gluten-free food is all the rage. Grocery stores devote whole aisles to it. Celebrities and fitness gurus tout its health benefits.
But is gluten the harmful substance some believe it to be, or is gluten-free just another unfounded food fad?
In a new review article published in the Journal of American Academy of Physician Assistants, Glenn A. Gaesser, Ph.D., and Siddhartha S. Angadi, Ph.D., make the case that for most people, there’s no benefit to going gluten-free.
Gaesser, who receives honoraria as chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Grain Foods Foundation and as a member of the Wheat Foods Council Advisory Board, and Angadi practice at the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center, Exercise Science and Health Promotion program in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona State University.
After looking over published research, they found no evidence that gluten is bad for the general population.
So Who Should Avoid Gluten?
Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder.
If you have it, gluten can cause damage to your small intestine. That can make it harder to absorb nutrients from food. It can also cause a variety of symptoms such as abdominal discomfort, weight loss, and malnutrition.
According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, the disease affects about 1 percent of people in the United States. For them, a strict gluten-free diet is essential.
Gluten is a naturally occurring mixture of proteins found in some grains, including wheat, barley, and rye. It shows up in many packaged foods, so avoiding gluten takes diligence.
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, you could also have a “gluten sensitivity.” While it doesn’t cause damage to the intestines, it can cause unpleasant symptoms. Avoiding gluten can help.
“While the gluten-free diet is a legitimate therapeutic tool for those affected by gluten-related disorders,” Gaesser said in a press release, “there has been a corrosion of common sense from people needlessly jumping on the fad diet bandwagon.”
A 2014 Consumer Reports survey found that 63 percent of Americans thought following a gluten-free diet would improve physical or mental health.
In a 2015 Gallup Poll, 21 percent of Americans said they try to include gluten-free foods in their diet. Seventeen percent said they avoid gluten-free foods. Fifty-eight percent don’t give gluten any thought at all.
Absent a gluten-related disorder, going gluten-free may be a pointless exercise. Some experts think it could also be harmful to your health.
The Right and Wrong Way to Go Gluten-Free
Some people avoid gluten because they think it will help them lose weight.
However, if foods with gluten are replaced with poorer quality foods, it may have the opposite effect. That’s because some gluten-free baked goods are higher in fat and calories but lower in protein.
“Gluten may be an important component of a typical balanced diet,” Angadi told Healthline. “Evidence suggests that it has a role to play in lowering triglycerides and oxidized low density lipoprotein (LDL). In fact, the effects of gluten on serum triglycerides and oxidized LDL are comparable to those of monounsaturated fat and soy protein.”
According to Gaesser, there is preliminary evidence that foods with gluten, especially whole grain wheat products high in dietary fiber, may boost beneficial gut bacteria.
Gluten-free products also tend to be more expensive than similar products with gluten.
Rachel Begun, M.S., R.D.N., culinary nutritionist and gluten-related disorders expert, says whether or not a gluten-free diet is a healthy one depends on the choices you make.
“A gluten-free diet rich in wholesome, naturally gluten-free foods like fruits, vegetables, gluten-free whole grains, and lean cuts of meat, poultry, and fish makes for a very healthy diet,” she told Healthline.
“However, if your idea of a gluten-free diet is to live mostly on gluten-free foods high in empty starches, refined grains, and added sugars, then it's not a healthy diet.”
Eating Healthy Is the Key
You may feel healthier on your gluten-free diet, but Begun says it’s not necessarily due to the lack of gluten. It’s more likely that your overall diet is healthier.
In an interview with Healthline, board certified integrative nutrition health coach Jennie Fagen agreed.
She said you probably feel better because you’re cutting out the processed white flour found in pastas, breads, and other baked goods. Those foods can spike your blood sugar and contribute to inflammation.
“If you are going gluten-free because you believe it is an effective way to lose weight or is a healthier way to live,” said Begun, “it's important to know that at this point in time there is no scientific evidence to show that removing gluten from the diet, in and of itself, leads to either of these benefits.”
For a healthier gluten-free diet, Fagen suggests eating whole grains like brown rice, amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, and oats (marked gluten-free).
If you’re not avoiding gluten, she still recommends choosing whole grains.
“They take a longer time to break down in the body, raising the blood sugar at a slower rate, and providing more sustainable energy,” she said.
Fagen urges caution when shopping. Gluten-free pastas and baked goods may look enticing but can be highly processed and loaded with sugar.
“Despite the boastful ‘gluten-free’ label, you may find your waistline mysteriously expanding as you eat these,” said Fagen.
Fagen does not have celiac disease but chooses to follow a gluten-free diet anyway. Foods like bagels and whole wheat tend to make her feel tired and bloated. She believes everyone’s body is unique and we each have to figure out what works best for us.
“Listen to your body,” said Fagen. “Get guidance from a health coach, nutritionist, or dietician. Try an elimination diet or clean-eating cleanse to see how you feel when you reintroduce these foods.”
Fagen said the gluten debate comes down to this: “How do you want to feel and what foods are going to allow you to feel nourished, energized, and inspired? Those are the foods you want to focus on, gluten or not.”