Is Gluten Bad for You? Get the Facts Now
Nut-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, grain-free… -free seems to be the way to go when trying to pick out healthy foods. These foods are not only labeled as healthful options when roaming the grocery store aisles, but they are also becoming more and more popular within the foodie world. Yet, beyond being on-trend, are these options always better?
Many believe these foods are made to help you achieve your weight-loss goals, get healthier, or provide the nutrition your body needs, but that isn’t always the case. Topping the charts as one of the most popular -free options is gluten-free. Over the years, negative media attention on wheat and gluten has caused some people to doubt their place in a healthful diet.
But let’s take a closer look at whether gluten really is bad for you.
What is Gluten?
Gluten refers to different types of proteins called prolamins, which are naturally found in some grains. These proteins act as binders, holding food together and adding a “stretchy” quality, which is why they are often used in baking. Although there are various prolamins, all are related and have similar structures and properties.
Gluten is most often associated with whole grains like wheat, barley, and rye. These whole grains are packed with nutrients, such as fiber, protein, B vitamins, antioxidants, and trace minerals like iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium. Studies have even linked eating whole grains to improved health. For instance, folks who ate the most grains (e.g., two to three servings of wheat) were found to have significantly lower rates of heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, and death from all causes when compared with folks who at less than two servings per day. 1
Gluten may also act as a prebiotic, feeding the good bacteria in our guts. Arabinoxylan oligosaccharide is a prebiotic carbohydrate derived from wheat bran that has been shown to stimulate the activity of Bifidobacteria, which is normally found in a healthy gut.
Is Gluten Bad For You?
Despite these benefits, a Consumer Reports National Research Center survey reported 63% of Americans believe a gluten-free diet could improve their mental or physical health. And up to a third are cutting back on gluten in hopes that it will improve their health or prevent disease.
In fact, studies show that people who do not have celiac disease are the biggest purchasers of gluten-free products, and the top reasons people select gluten-free foods are for no reason at all or simply because they believe they are a healthier option. 2
However, many health experts recommend not going gluten-free if you don’t have to. This is because gluten is found in many carbohydrates, an important part of a healthy, balanced diet. Carbohydrates provide the body with the energy it needs and make up ~55% to 60% of a typical diet.
Even more, processed gluten-free foods may be high in calories, sugar, saturated fat, and sodium and low in nutrients. This is because manufacturers often add sugar or fat to these gluten-free foods to make up for changes in texture once gluten is removed. Additionally, a 2017 review found that those pursuing a gluten-free diet often consume less calcium, B vitamins, and fiber, all while increasing their intake of fat and simple carbohydrates. 3
Regardless, another reason some may choose to cut out gluten is to lose weight, which can be the wrong motive to go gluten-free. As with a majority of fad diets, you can lose weight when cutting out an entire food group from your diet, but these diets are not typically sustainable over a long period of time for most people. Maintaining a gluten-free diet for weight loss can be difficult to stick with and put you at risk of missing out on essential nutrients. Luckily, there are far healthier and easier ways to lose weight, such as including more vegetables in the diet.
When to Go Gluten-Free
Undoubtedly, gluten can cause serious side effects in some individuals. Side effects can range from mild symptoms in the form of fatigue, bloating, alternating constipation and diarrhea to severe symptoms like unintentional weight loss, malnutrition, or intestinal damage, as seen in the autoimmune disorder celiac disease.
Estimates suggest that 1 in 133 Americans has celiac disease, or about 1% of the population. Celiac disease is an inflammatory autoimmune disease caused by both genetic and environmental factors that involve many systems in the body yet is considered an inflammatory disorder of the small intestine. For those with celiac disease, consuming any of these grains causes damage to cells lining your small intestine (called enterocytes). This leads to intestinal damage, nutrient malabsorption, and symptoms like weight loss and diarrhea. 4
The condition can be diagnosed by intestinal or blood testing for specific genotypes or antibodies. Currently, there is no cure for celiac disease, and the only known treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet. Still, celiac disease is not the only reason to go gluten-free. Other conditions that may require the reduction or elimination of gluten include:
- Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: an intolerance to gluten with similar symptoms as seen with celiac disease, but without the intestinal damage. There is no diagnostic test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity but is instead determined by persistent symptoms and a negative diagnostic celiac test.
- Wheat allergy: an allergy to one or more of the proteins found in wheat, most often seen in children, diagnosed with positive immunoglobulin E blood tests. Symptoms range from mild to severe and may include swelling or itching of the mouth or throat, hives, itchy eyes, shortness of breath, nausea, and anaphylaxis. It’s worth noting, however, that some people who test negative for an allergy may still be sensitive to gluten.
- Dermatitis herpetiformis: a skin rash that results from eating gluten. It is an autoimmune response that results in a persistent red itchy skin rash that may produce blisters and bumps.
If you don’t have any of the above conditions and can eat gluten without trouble, there is no compelling evidence that eating gluten-free will improve health or prevent disease. Many foods containing gluten, such as whole grains or seitan, are, in fact, good and offer numerous health benefits.
Nevertheless, everyone’s body is different, and with this in mind, some people just feel better when they avoid gluten-containing items. In this case, you should do what feels and works best for you. The foods in your diet should work with you and not against you, and a healthy diet can be achieved whether that includes gluten or opting for gluten-free.