Gluten Free? Don't need to be.
Going gluten free is a very popular dieting trend. A gluten free diet (GFD) is thought to work, because wheat and other gluten containing products cause obesity, cardiac diseases, and diabetes, and adherents to a GFD believe they can improve exercise performance, reduce inflammation and illness, and improve body composition through avoidance of gluten (Newberry, Mcknight, Sarav, & Pickett-Blakely, 2017). GFD have become popular despite there being little evidence to support these claims.
First, gluten is type of structural protein found in grain products, particularly wheat, that allows dough to have high water absorption capacity, cohesiveness , viscosity and elasticity (Wieser, 2007). GFDs are effective treatments for certain metabolic disorders. Celiac disease is triggered by the consumption of gluten products, is characterized by chronic inflammation of the bowels and caused by the bodies inability to break down the gluten protein that holds certain grains together (Bascuñán, Vespa, & Araya, 2016). Some people have some level of gluten sensitivity, based on their genetics, where they also have trouble digesting gluten, which causes various degrees of gastrointestinal distress. People with gluten sensitivity and celiac disease should follow a GFD.
For the general population there is little evidence supporting switching to a GFD improves general health. Tavakkoli, Lewis, Tennyson, Lebwohl, and Green (2013) examined followers of a GFD and people who consumed a typical diet. They found the followers of a GFD typically had lower BMI, lower levels of hypertension, and hemoglobin levels. However, it was unclear whether following a GFD was the cause of these outcomes or the GFD followers simply engaged in more healthy behaviors like exercise, or were more aware of their nutritional intake. A study of young people supports this conclusion, with people who value a GFD engage in eating breakfast, eating fruits and vegetables, and eating organic foods (Christoph, Larson, Hootman, Miller, & Neumark-Sztainer, 2018). Healthy behavior is correlated with following a GFD, but following a GFD does always result in a healthy outcome.
Reilly (2016) highlights the possible health concerns of eating a GFD. Gluten free packaged foods include high levels of fat and sugar, possibly leading to obesity with overconsumption. A GFD also lacks several key nutrients like B vitamins and iron found in grains, and a person may become deficient without supplementation. Prepackaged gluten-free foods are often expensive and can cost as much as 3 times more than its counterpart (Newberry et al., 2017). A GFD can possibly damage a person’s financial health and physical health.
GFD are popular but unnecessary for most people. They are an effective treatment for celiac disease and other related disorders. It is hard to separate the health effects from a GFD, because followers without celiac disease already follow a healthy lifestyle. Gluten free substitutes of food are unhealthy and expensive. Unless a person is told by a registered dietician or physician, gluten can be consumed within reason.
Bascuñán, K. A., Vespa, M. C., & Araya, M. (2016). Celiac disease: Understanding the gluten-free diet. European Journal of Nutrition, 56(2), 449-459.
Christoph, M. J., Larson, N., Hootman, K. C., Miller, J. M., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2018). Who values gluten-free? Dietary intake, behaviors, and sociodemographic characteristics of young adults who value gluten-free food. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 118(8), 1389-1398.
Newberry, C., Mcknight, L., Sarav, M., & Pickett-Blakely, O. (2017). Going gluten free: The history and nutritional implications of today’s most popular diet. Current Gastroenterology Reports, 19(11), 54-65.
Tavakkoli, A., Lewis, S. K., Tennyson, C. A., Lebwohl, B., & Green, P. H. (2013). Characteristics of patients who avoid wheat and/or gluten in the absence of Celiac disease. Digestive Diseases and Sciences, 59(6), 1255-1261. doi:10.1007/s10620-013-2981-6
Wieser, H. (2007). Chemistry of gluten proteins. Food Microbiology, 24(2), 115-119.