Is gluten-free the way to be?

A wheat field in Idaho

A wheat field in Idaho

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past few years, you’re likely very much aware of the gluten-free diet craze that has swept the country. While it seems like it is “new”, its proponents use the exact same play-book as those who promote fat-free and carb-free diets to the public. The strategy is simple: identify one nutrient or food group as the culprit responsible for the obesity epidemic, and a laundry list of other serious health problems. Remove this food and your health will improve. This time it is gluten, which is simply a protein composite found in wheat and closely related grains, and gives wheat dough its well-known elasticity.

As unscientific as these eliminationist claims may be, there is often a grain of truth to them. While dietary fat may not be the main or only cause of obesity, too much of it isn’t good for you; the same is true of carbohydrate or anything for that matter. And while evidence for gluten being harmful to the general population is lacking, people with celiac disease, who are a tiny minority of the population(about 1%), absolutely have to avoid all gluten containing grains or they will experience severe gastrointestinal problems. There is a slightly larger percentage of the population that is sensitive to or allergic to gluten and wheat, and are better off avoiding it.

Just because some people have serious problems with a certain food doesn’t mean that the general population will benefit from avoiding that food. I’m allergic to bananas, but it would be nonsensical to advocate a banana-free diet to people who aren’t allergic to bananas.

Besides the fact that there are no recognized benefits for the general population, a gluten-free diet can be much more expensive, though it is unlikely to be harmful if a person is still eating a healthful diet otherwise. Ultimately, to help separate the wheat from the chaff, what does the scientific evidence say? According to Gluten-Free Diet: Imprudent Dietary Advice for the General Population? in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:

There is no evidence to suggest that following a gluten-free diet has any significant benefits in the general population. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that a gluten-free diet may adversely affect gut health in those without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.31 Additional research is needed to clarify the health effects of gluten, and potential consequences of avoiding gluten-containing grains.

So it looks like the general population is unlikely to derive any benefits from a gluten-free diet. If you haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease or wheat allergy by a medical doctor, you are unlikely to benefit.

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3 responses to “Is gluten-free the way to be?

  1. Pingback: #GMO Round-Up or Gluten in Wheat Products” | Ace Food News 2014

  2. Thanks for providing some sanity.

    • You’re welcome, and thank you for reading. I get tired of seeing “gluten-free” everywhere as if gluten is a kind of poison. Only a few people need to avoid it. Do come by again, Jeremy!

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