In recent years, the media has endorsed the gluten-free diet as a strategy to lose weight, boost energy, and live healthier lives. As the experts in all things food and nutrition related, registered dietitians must promote evidence-based science, even if it often contradicts what is said in the media. So if you are wondering if you should go gluten-free, here is what you should know.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and triticale, induces inflammation and destruction of the small intestine. As a result, malabsorption and nutrient deficiencies can occur, as well as gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhea, bloating, gas, and fatigue. To find out if one has celiac disease, there is a blood test looking for antibodies produced in response to gluten or an intestinal biopsy to confirm damage and inflammation of the gut caused by gluten. Additionally, people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) experience the same symptoms as those with celiac disease in response to gluten; however, they do not test positive for celiac disease. The only treatment for celiac disease and relief of symptoms for NCGS is the complete elimination of gluten from the diet.
For individuals living with celiac disease or NCGS, avoiding gluten is critical. Fortunately, only about 1% of Americans are diagnosed with celiac disease and an estimated 6% are affected by NCGS. So, why are so many other people adopting a gluten-free diet? Many believe that avoiding gluten will result in significant weight loss. However, the only reason a gluten-free diet might induce weight loss is because it can be calorie restrictive. For an individual who regularly consumes bread, pasta, pizza, beer, and other sources of gluten, eliminating these foods from the diet could potentially lead to weight loss. However, it is important to note that weight loss is the result of a calorie deficit, not the lack of gluten in one’s diet. With the increased availability of gluten-free products in grocery stores and restaurants, gluten-free diets may not be that restrictive after all.
For individuals without celiac disease or NCGS, following a gluten-free diet can have negative health consequences. Gluten-containing products are often a rich source of fiber, folate, iron, niacin, riboflavin, and thiamine. Since gluten-free products are rarely enriched with these essential vitamins and minerals, adopting a gluten-free diet poses a risk for several nutrient deficiencies. Additionally, in order to achieve the same quality of flavor and texture, many gluten-free products are highly processed and higher in saturated fat, sodium,sugar, and calories compared to a similar product which contains gluten. A diet high in these nutrients can lead to weight gain and other negative health outcomes.
The media is abundant with advice to avoid wheat and other gluten-contain products in order to achieve a slimmer waistline or other health benefits. For individuals with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a gluten-free diet is a health priority. However, avoiding gluten is not necessary if an individual does not have celiac disease or NCGS, and it can lead to negative health consequences. For more information about celiac disease and living gluten-free, visit the Celiac Disease Foundation.