by Women's Health Updated 09/2021
Diet trends that have come and gone include the low-carbohydrate phenomenon (Atkins™ diet), the nonfat fad, and more unusual plans centered around grapefruit or cleansing concoctions. The latest craze to sweep the magazines and the supermarket shelves? The gluten-free diet.
Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and spelt grain. These grains have been part of the human diet for thousands of years, and they contribute health benefits such as fiber, vitamins, and calories. To receive the maximum health advantage, it is recommended to consume predominantly whole, unprocessed grains. A gluten-free diet is only an imperative for those diagnosed with Celiac disease and may be helpful for those who are “wheat intolerant”. For the typical, health conscious person, gluten is a necessary, and even valuable, part of a diet rich in whole grains.
Medical Reality Versus Media Hype
Currently, there is an increasingly popular view that a gluten-free diet is a healthier way to eat. There are even reports stating that it can resolve a host of unexplained gastrointestinal symptoms and can cure a variety of conditions, including autism, ADHD, irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and even obesity. These reports are anecdotal, however; there is no conclusive medical evidence or studies to support the claims.A gluten-free diet is, however, an essential medical practice for people diagnosed with celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the small intestine to react to the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. This causes decreased nutrient absorption and inflammation that damages the intestinal tract. Celiac disease is thought to affect approximately 1 in 133 people (about 3 million Americans), many of whom are undiagnosed.It is imperative for anyone who thinks he or she may be experiencing symptoms of celiac disease to be tested for the condition before attempting to self-treat by eliminating gluten. Testing typically includes blood tests, which are followed by a biopsy of the intestine. Further intervention may be needed for other medical issues caused by gluten sensitivities.
Benefits and Downsides
Many people who end up testing negative for celiac disease may wonder why they still feel better when they eliminate wheat from their diet. This is because wheat is a main ingredient in common processed foods, and by eliminating wheat and processed foods, people naturally return to a healthy diet of more fruits, vegetables, and other alternative high-fiber grains, which makes them feel better. In addition to possibly directing consumers toward a healthier diet based on more whole foods, there are a few other positive outcomes stemming from the gluten-free trend. Due to higher demand, there has been an increase in the variety and the quality of gluten-free products available in the marketplace for those diagnosed with celiac disease who truly need to follow a gluten-free diet. This has led to an expanded consumer awareness of many ancient grains, such as spelt, quinoa, and millet, that provide great health benefits such as antioxidants and fiber.
A downside of the fad is that many people are trying the gluten-free diet for no medical reason. They are spending extra money on high-cost products marketed as “gluten-free” that provide no real benefit. Ultimately, anyone experiencing symptoms associated with celiac disease should pursue medical testing. If the result is negative but gastrointestinal symptoms persist, it may be worthwhile to eliminate wheat as part of a comprehensive process to identify food intolerances. (A food intolerance is not an allergy but can still cause physical discomfort.) For those who simply want to try out the gluten-free trend, even with no real medical evidence to support it yet, it’s essential to continue to eat a balanced diet to get enough vital nutrients. Remember, just because a product is gluten-free does not mean that it is healthy.
Are There Cracks in the Case for Gluten?
The anti-gluten craze is no mere diet fad. It’s actually based in scientific research: for example, a 2011 study of gluten sensitivity found that individuals without celiac disease appeared to experience more gastrointestinal issues and tiredness on a gluten diet compared with those on a gluten-free diet.(1)
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Researchers from the above study, however, didn’t uncover how gluten might be causing these issues and have since questioned their results. They’ve recently released findings from another study, in which they’ve concluded that gluten might not be the cause of gastrointestinal and other issues among people without celiac disease. When a number of people who identified themselves as having NCGS followed a gluten-free diet, the symptoms they or a healthcare provider had blamed on gluten didn’t improve. Based on this study, it appears that some of the issues we’ve associated with gluten may in fact be caused by other food sensitivities.(2)
What does this mean for you? If you haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease but truly feel better on a gluten-free diet, you may want to stick with that plan. On the other hand, those who have been avoiding gluten because of general health claims may want to take a second look at the issue. If you’re experiencing symptoms that you think may be associated with gluten, the best idea is to visit your doctor and consider all possible dietary causes before you remove gluten from your meal plan.
- Biesiekierski JR, Newnham ED, Irving PM, et al. Gluten Causes Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Subjects without Celiac Disease: A Double-Blind Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial. American Journal of Gastroenterology [early online publication]. January 11, 2011.
- Biesiekierski JR, Newnham ED, Shepherd SJ, et al. Characterization of Adults with a Self-Diagnosis of Nonceliac Gluten Sensitivity. Nutrition in Clinical Practice [early online publication]. April 16, 2014.