Only about one percent of America’s population is diagnosed with a gluten-related illness, yet nearly a third of the population would prefer to reduce or avoid gluten.
Multiple factors have contributed to the spike of gluten-free diets (GFD), including media coverage, aggressive consumer-directed marketing, and official reports regarding the benefits of gluten avoidance, such as improvement of other health-related symptoms.
Many Americans believe that gluten itself is unhealthy, but this is not the case. Furthermore, evidence suggests that a GFD puts your health at risk.
Only those with celiac disease and other diagnosed gluten intolerances require gluten avoidance. If you’re unconvinced and insist on adopting a GFD, consider the following facts to make an informed decision about modifying your diet.
1. Nutritional Deficiencies
Whole grain foods such as bread products, pasta, and breakfast cereals are often enriched and therefore contribute substantial amounts of fiber, vitamins and minerals to the diets of Americans.
Most refined, gluten-free breads, pastas, and breakfast cereals are neither enriched nor fortified, making it difficult to get these important nutrients.
People with celiac disease on a strict gluten-free diet were found to have inadequate intakes of fiber, iron and calcium. The Harvard school of public health states that, “an overreliance on processed gluten-free products may lead to a decreased intake of certain nutrients like fiber and B vitamins that are protective against chronic diseases.”
To balance the nutrients lost from giving up gluten, choose nutrient-rich gluten-free foods, such as fruits, vegetables and gluten-free whole grains rather than packaged, processed gluten-free options.
A consultation with one of Mohawk Valley Health System’s nutrition specialists can help you maintain wellness on a GFD.
Conditions with Potential Benefits from a GFD
Potential Risks of a GFD
Gluten-sensitive irritable bowel syndrome
Deficiencies of micronutrients and fiber
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity
Increases in fat content of foods
Schizophrenia or other mental health conditions
Coronary artery disease
2. Weight Gain
Many Americans mistakenly assume that gluten free snacks are a healthier alternative to gluten-containing snacks, but some processed gluten-free products are higher in fat, sugar and calories and can lead to weight gain.
Additionally, those who do have gluten intolerances may experience improved absorption of nutrients, a reduction in stomach discomfort, and increased appetite after starting the diet, which contributes to weight gain.
Instead of gluten-free cookies or cakes, choose fruit-based desserts, such as yogurt parfaits. Choose low fat protein sources such as lean meat, poultry without the skin, fish and other seafood. Opt for low fat or skim milk, low fat cheeses, low fat or fat-free yogurt, and sherbet or sorbet instead of full-fat ice cream.
3. Higher Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Many studies have found that people with higher intakes of whole grains compared with groups eating less had a significantly lower risk of heart disease.
A study of over 100,000 participants without celiac disease found that those who restricted gluten intake experienced an increased risk of heart disease compared with those who had higher gluten intake.
Furthermore, the British Medical Journal concluded that “long term dietary intake of gluten was not associated with risk of coronary heart disease. However, the avoidance of gluten may result in reduced consumption of beneficial whole grains, which may affect cardiovascular risk. The promotion of gluten-free diets among people without celiac disease should not be encouraged.”
Although a GFD may help to alleviate symptoms in various conditions related to gluten sensitivity, the potential risks can outweigh the potential benefits. Current evidence shows that a GFD has no health benefits for those unaffected by celiac disease.
To be sure, always consult with your doctor before making dramatic changes to your diet.