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“An Ounce of Prevention”: Gluten-free Foods: Healthy for All?

Many grocery stores now have entire aisles devoted to gluten-free foods. Many restaurant menus declare gluten-free items. The question is: should everyone avoid gluten? Certainly with all the marketing about gluten-free products and celebrities touting a gluten-free lifestyle, you might think the answer is “yes”. But there is no solid evidence that a gluten-free diet is beneficial for everyone.

A gluten-free diet is critical for those diagnosed with celiac disease (also called celiac sprue). Celiac disease is a digestive disorder affecting about 1% of the population. When persons with Celiac disease ingest gluten, (a special type of protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats), their immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine. This causes permanent damage to the intestinal wall, resulting in a decreased ability to absorb nutrients from food. Over time, persons with celiac disease can become malnourished no matter how well they eat. There is solid scientific evidence that a gluten-free diet is essential for maintaining their health. For those with diagnosed celiac disease, the availability of gluten-free products that are easy to obtain is a blessing.

However, for those who do not have celiac disease, scientific research shows that there is no published evidence to support gluten-free eating for the general population. In fact, you might actually be harming yourself by avoiding gluten. Here’s why:

Several research articles report that there is no evidence that a gluten-free diet may help you to lose weight. In fact, in studies of people with celiac who were previously overweight, a large percentage of both children and adults actually gained weight on a gluten-free diet. Nutrition Action Health Letter (October 14, 2014) points out that many of the gluten-free products available replace the wheat with extra sugars and fats and caution that despite the fact they are gluten-free, “junk” snacks (like cookies, cinnamon buns and chip-like snacks) are still junk and are not likely to cause you to lose weight.

Other studies have shown that a gluten-free diet in healthy persons may actually reduce good bacteria in your bowels while increasing bad bacteria. Additionally, studies have shown that gluten in healthy people may help to keep blood lipids (fats like triglyceride) under control. If you start a gluten-free diet on your own without a medical evaluation, you may actually interfere with a proper diagnosis of your condition. Furthermore, you may be spending money on foods that are not improving your health.

If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is critical. For those diagnosed or suspected of having a gluten-sensitivity, a gluten-free diet may be helpful. Similarly, there is other evidence that for certain diseases or conditions, gluten-free may provide some benefits. But if you have not been diagnosed with Celiac or related conditions, there is no evidence that gluten-free is a healthier way of eating. In fact, it may cause some health detriments.

To learn about celiac disease, visit the QVHD website, www.qvhd.org (search celiac disease) where there are links to articles about the disease. If you do not have internet access and would like free reprints of the articles, District residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) can call QVHD, 203 248-4528 or request by email, dculligan@qvhd.org. (Articles from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics-Sept.2011 and the Journal of the American Dietetic Association-Nov. 2011 were consulted in the writing of this article.)

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