It’s trendy to eat gluten-free, but it may not be the best choice for your health.
Gluten-free diets have become much more popular in recent years, but not because celiac disease is more common; on the contrary, the percentage of people who suffer this illness worldwide is stable at about 1 percent.
This means that people who are not suffering from celiac disease are also following a diet without wheat, barley, rye, and other related grains, but without any apparent medical justification.
There can be various reasons for this interest in gluten-free diets on the part of people who do not suffer from celiac disease or from other diagnosed forms of gluten or wheat allergy or intolerance—such as believing this kind of diet is healthier, that it helps with weight loss, or that gluten causes cardiovascular disease.The cause could even be just the greater availability of gluten-free products, and the growing tendency to “self diagnose.”
These beliefs have no scientific foundation. Gluten isn’t fattening, and removing it from your diet does not, as such, help you lose weight; on the contrary, if you don’t suffer from celiac disease or gluten intolerance, it isn’t any healthier than a normal diet. Actually, a gluten-free diet could potentially lead to nutritional deficiencies in your body.
You might be considering dropping gluten from your diet because other people you know lost weight when they tried it, but the fact is, they lost weight for other reasons. Among other things, when they changed their diet may have started eating healthier food in general. Cutting out gluten means not eating flour-based products, which tend to be high in carbohydrates. So logically, they lost weight, at least at first. It all depends on how they replaced those foods—and gluten-free versions of familiar foods are often not the healthiest option.
The use of fat and sugars
It can actually be difficult to lose weight on a gluten-free diet, because—especially in industrially produced food—something needs to substitute for gluten in order to compensate for the change in flavor and texture; for example, a gluten-free cookie probably is going to need more fat and sugar in order to taste good. If we swap out ordinary foods containing wheat for gluten-free equivalents, we can end up consuming just as many (or more) calories.
Another reason why some people without celiac disease may go gluten-free is because they think that gluten increases the risk of heart disease.
This is a myth. According to the results of a study by the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University Medical Center, published in the British Medical Journal, limiting gluten consumption not only does not provide any benefit for heart health; on the contrary, it can be indirectly harmful.
This is because, as the study points out, “people who severely restrict gluten intake may also significantly limit their intake of whole grains, which may actually be associated with adverse cardiovascular outcomes.” Whole grains have been shown to have multiple health benefits, helping weight loss, reducing blood cholesterol levels, reducing hypertension, and avoiding or managing diabetes, among other things. Removing those grains from your diet means depriving yourself of their benefits for your heart and overall health.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a grayish, sticky substance, made up of proteins, and found in wheat, rye, barley, and related grains and their derivatives—most commonly, flour.
Gluten is what provides the structure for the sponginess of bread and the elasticity of pasta, for example. When you remove gluten from your diet, you have to stop eating foods made with the grains mentioned above, and replace them with food made with flour made from tapioca, rice, or corn; as mentioned earlier, these foods often contain more fat and sugar to improve the consistency and flavor of the dough. Of course, increased consumption of these ingredients can contribute to greater risk of heart disease.
Clearly, people who are gluten intolerant, allergic to wheat, or suffer from celiac disease, must follow a strict gluten-free diet for the rest of their lives. The best thing to do in this case is to consult with a nutritionist and your primary care doctor to see how best to compensate for removing gluten from your diet, in order to avoid nutritional deficiencies; removing gluten also means removing fiber and the vitamins and minerals often found in fortified wheat flour.
Most experts and scientific studies confirm that, for people who do not have celiac disease or another allergy or intolerance for wheat or gluten, eating gluten does not involve any health risk. Therefore, the best thing is not to let yourself get caught up in trendy diets. Instead, if you have concerns about your diet or want to lose weight, go to a health care professional for guidance about how to eat healthier.
This article was originally published in the Spanish edition of Aleteia and has been translated and adapted here for English speaking readers.