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Each time I ask “what is gluten?”, I receive the following answer: “ummm …. something that’s bad for you”. Gluten is one of those buzzwords that many use but don’t really understand. Many people today eliminate gluten from their diets, declare themselves “gluten-free” and spend money on expensive food for no specific reason except because “they say it’s bad for you”. And that’s a pity since gluten is not this mysterious substance that causes so much “harm” to our health, as the current culture makes us believe. Actually, as you’ll see, it’s part of some foods that provide us with important nutrients in our diet.
So, is gluten really that bad for you? Do you want to know if you really need to eliminate it from your diet, or if it’s just another fad? Keep on reading to solve this mystery.
What is gluten?
Gluten is simply a protein found naturally in certain cereals. That’s it! It is not a radioactive substance or a processed ingredient, nor will it turn you into a zombie! The cereals that contain gluten are the following:
Tip: Oats have no gluten in their natural state, but can be contaminated with wheat, barley or rye during processing. If you are intolerant, gluten-free oatmeal is your best option.
It is also found in certain wheat species and their hybrids:
Is gluten bad for you?
So if it’s just a plant protein, where does this common belief that gluten is bad for you come from? Well, there are people who definitely CANNOT include gluten in their diet for specific health conditions. These conditions are the following:
Celiac disease: An autoimmune condition in which gluten causes an immune reaction that damages the wall of the intestine. This results in the nutrients from food not being well absorbed, weight loss, anemia and other health complications. Symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, swelling, headache or skin rashes are very common.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity : Causes symptoms similar to those of celiac disease, such as those mentioned above. However, there is no damage to the intestines.
Wheat allergy: Immune system reaction to wheat. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, congestion, anaphylaxis, and other allergy symptoms.
So, gluten is only dangerous for those who can’t tolerate it. For the healthy population, there is no need to eliminate gluten from the diet.
However, according to this article from the Journal of the American Medical Association, the results from the NHANES 2009-2014 found that there has been an increase in the number of people (2.7 million in total) who follow a gluten-free diet without having an underlying health condition. And yet, only 1.76 million actually do suffer from celiac disease, a number that has remained stable during those 5 years ?. The authors speculate that those who are eliminating gluten from their diets with no medical cause do so for the following reasons:
- The public perception that a gluten-free diet is healthier and may improve non-specific gastrointestinal symptoms
- Because gluten-free products are now more widely available
- Because more and more people diagnose themselves with gluten sensitivity, rather than celiac disease, and have noticed that their gastrointestinal health has improved after eliminating gluten
Ok, now we’ll see which are the current beliefs that continue to prolong the myth that “gluten is bad” for your health. In addition, I’ve included the scientific references that refute these myths. Finally, I’ll discuss the consequences of following a gluten-free diet unnecessarily.
Myths and facts about gluten
So many evil properties have been attributed to gluten, from causing cancer, weight gain, autism, diabetes, fibromyalgia, and the list goes on. Once I heard someone say that it sticks to the intestines and that the body cannot eliminate it ….. um, ok ….? Anyways, this is common when these food trends take on a life of their own. But, since I love to bust food and nutrition related myths, here I’ll discuss the most common ones that surround gluten.
Does gluten make you fat?
There is no solid evidence that proves that gluten itself causes weight gain, nor that following a gluten-free diet will lead to weight control. We lose weight by burning more calories than we consume, through healthy eating and physical activity – not by eliminating gluten. Yes, we’ll hear many testimonies from people who have eliminated it from their diet, lost weight and felt better. Especially from celebrities, who also have chefs, personal trainers and plastic surgeons on call ;-).
This weight loss effect is basically due to gluten-free proponents eliminating processed products and “junk” food from their diet. Many of these “junk” foods do contain gluten, but in themselves are also high in calories. Therefore, by eliminating these products, calorie intake is reduced which=weight loss. They also tend to be more careful with their diet, which also helps with weight control. In fact, eating more whole grains, even those that contain gluten, helps us feel fuller, which in the long run helps us achieve a healthy weight.
Does eating gluten cause cancer?
There is also no evidence between eating gluten and an increased risk of cancer in people who do not suffer from gastrointestinal conditions. In fact, evidence suggests that the more whole grains we eat, including those with gluten, the lower the risk of developing certain types of cancer, such as breast, prostate, colorectal and pancreas. Whole grains also contain antioxidants and phytonutrients that help protect our health from many illnesses, including cancer.
Will you have more energy if you eliminate gluten?
There’s a common belief that digesting gluten is more difficult for the body and requires more energy, resulting in constant fatigue. Currently, there is no evidence to support this theory. However, many anti-gluten advocates report that since eliminating it, they feel more energetic. One of the reasons for this is that those who eliminate gluten tend to also eliminate many processed products. They also tend to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables. And a diet that’s high in nutritious foods (and low in those that contain a lot of added sugars and fats) will help you feel more full of energy, with or without gluten. ?♀️
Is there a relationship between gluten and autism?
For the past several years, the practice of recommending a gluten-free diet to children on the autism spectrum has been more and more common. It is speculated that those on the spectrum tend to have a “leaky gut” problem that allows gluten to “escape” into the bloodstream and affect the brain and nervous system. This in turn is believed to alter behavior.
So far, we do not have enough evidence on whether this theory has any validity. The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders published a study in which it was found that adjusting the diet by eliminating gluten (and casein, a milk protein) “had no statistically significant effects on physiological functioning measures, behavioral problems or symptoms of autism. “
Similarly, in this other study there were also no benefits from following a gluten-free diet as a treatment for autism symptoms. The authors think that “there may be a subgroup of patients who could benefit from a gluten-free diet, but the symptom or test profile of these candidates is still unclear.” Although there are reports of children whose symptoms have improved with the elimination of gluten from their diet, this is not always the case, and more evidence is needed to know if there really is a relationship between gluten and autism.
Nutritional risks of eliminating gluten unnecessarily
For the rest of the population, there is no reason to avoid gluten. As I mentioned earlier, although it’s now trendy to be “gluten-free”, there is no medical or scientific evidence that supports eliminating gluten from your diet unless you have a health condition that warrants it.
In fact, a Harvard University study points out the importance of whole grains for cardiovascular health. The study warns that eliminating these grains from the diet, without any medical reason, is not recommended.
In addition, people who unnecessarily avoid gluten are not getting enough important nutrients from their diet such as:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B12
- Folic acid
Gluten-free diets also tend to be low in fiber. Fiber is necessary for the promotion of digestive health and heart health. If we are following a gluten-free diet for no medical reason, we are losing out on the benefits that fiber provides to our health.
Finally, some gluten-free foods have more fat and sugar than the original product, to compensate for the removal of this protein. Just because a food is labeled “gluten-free” does not necessarily mean it’s a healthier option. And let’s not even mention how expensive these foods are!
What to consider before eliminating gluten from your diet
So, returning to the initial question, I will say that gluten is harmful only for people who suffer from health conditions that are worsened by it. If you think you need to eliminate gluten from your diet, consider the following:
- If you are experiencing symptoms such as chronic or severe abdominal pain, swelling or diarrhea, consult a doctor first, since he or she can evaluate and diagnose its cause.
- Continue to consume gluten until you have been tested for celiac disease, since eliminating gluten can lead to a false negative result.
- Talk to a dietitian before eliminating gluten, to make sure your diet includes all the essential nutrients. Never self-prescribe a diet without first consulting with a health professional.
As for the healthy population, I still recommend a balanced diet with a wide variety of foods, plus consistent physical activity. I personally believe that quick and trendy “solutions” do not really solve anything in the long run. And as we’ve seen above, they can also represent a risk of malnutrition. So, the next time you encounter the issue that “gluten is bad for you”, you’ll know that it is bad, but only for those who cannot tolerate it.
And now, I want to hear your opinion about all this gluten-free frenzy. Do you think it has any validity for the healthy population? Or do you think the only one who is only benefiting from it is the diet industry? Let’s chat in the comments section!
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…