Should I Go Gluten-Free?

photo from ThinkStock via Tri County Health Department

photo from ThinkStock via Tri County Health Department

We all know someone who swears by the gluten-free diet, and it’s not uncommon to walk into the grocery store to see an entire section devoted to gluten-free products. A common belief is that gluten is detrimental to health, and eliminating it yields significant benefits. This is true for the 2% of the U.S. population that has been diagnosed with either Celiac disease or a wheat allergy. For the general population, the evidence supporting a gluten-free diet is inconclusive. Here I’ll address the arguments against gluten and what current scientific research actually reports.

Arguments Against Gluten

The modern wheat crop has been modified from its initial form which is why it makes people sick.

The modern wheat crop has been modified to become sturdier, better resistant to pests and disease, and to generate higher yields.  However, this is done through the age old process of conventional breeding (crossing parents and selecting offspring) which takes advantage of natural variations that exist within crop species.  Conventional breeding does lead to different combinations of proteins within wheat crops, but clinical evidence fails to establish these alterations have adverse effects on health.  It’s also important to note that commercially available wheat is not genetically engineered with genes from unrelated species.

Following a gluten-free diet promotes weight loss.

Scientific evidence does not support that gluten is an independent factor of weight. Rather, research suggests the elimination of common starches required by a GFD is ultimately the effective mechanism – low-carbohydrate diets are proven to promote weight loss.   Adopting a GFD also tends to stimulate other positive diet changes that include reduced intake of processed foods and increased fruit and vegetable consumption.  Therefore, while weight loss can occur, it’s not due to the exclusion of gluten specifically.  Remember, weight loss can be achieved by replacing highly processed, high-calorie, high-fat foods with more nutrient-dense foods, regardless of gluten content.

Restricting gluten reduces disease.

These claims have historically been based on testimonial rather than hard science; and when further investigated, the data from the testimonials suggest that confounding factors greatly impacted outcomes For instance, the weight loss which can accompany a GFD is the more likely culprit for improving symptoms of conditions like sleep apnea, acid reflux, and asthma and reducing the risk of disease such as type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome.

Gluten-free foods are healthier.

Gluten-free foods are not inherently healthier. Several studies assessing the nutritional quality of gluten-free products have demonstrated they can be poor sources of vitamins and minerals.  According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the “adherence to the gluten-free dietary pattern may result in a diet that is high in fat and low in carbohydrates and fiber, as well as low in iron, folate, niacin, vitamin B-12, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc.”  Furthermore, the naturally occurring fructan-type resistant starches in wheat have also been shown to promote gut health.  Additionally, many gluten-free products use substitute flour mixes that contain added sugar or fat to improve the palatability.

Main Take-Away

It is unnecessary for the general population to avoid gluten for health reasons, as substantial medical benefit has not been recognized.

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