Is It Time to Rethink Gluten-Free?

May 12, 2017

There’s no doubt about it: If a person suffers from celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder) or a diagnosed wheat allergy, avoiding gluten is a must. Gluten—a protein found in a variety of grains including wheat, rye and barley—triggers an abnormal immune system response in people with celiac disease. Symptoms can range from unexplained fatigue to joint pain, depression, seizures, and skin rashes. People who suffer from a wheat allergy can react to gluten with a different array of symptoms, including swelling, hives, cramps, and diarrhea.

But only a tiny fraction of people following a gluten-free (GF) regimen suffer from either of these conditions. So what explains the diet’s soaring popularity? According to nationwide surveys, many GF followers believe that going gluten-free will boost their heart health, improve their digestion, or help them lose weight. Unfortunately, none of these claims have been validated by medical research. In fact, recent studies reveal that a GF diet may actually pose risks. For example:

Heavy metal exposure

New research published in the journal Epidemiology links GF eating to higher levels of toxic metals such as arsenic and mercury. In fact, people following a GF diet had nearly twice the levels of arsenic in their urine, and 70 percent higher levels of mercury in their blood. Researchers believe this may be because GF products often substitute rice for other grains, and rice is known to absorb these metals from soil and water. The health effects of absorbing these metals from food are not fully known, but experts say they may increase an individual’s risk of developing cancer and other chronic diseases.

Weight gain

Many packaged GF products are higher in fat and sugar than their traditional counterparts—and this could lead to weight gain rather than loss, according to the Journal of Pediatrics. “If you’re going to eliminate gluten-containing foods from your diet, you have to really think about what you’re going to be eating instead,” says Amanda Kendall, a clinical dietician at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. “If your goal is weight loss, instead of cutting out gluten, it’s better to just eat smaller portions of regular, healthy foods.”

Loss of key nutrients

Packaged GF products are less likely to be fortified with essential vitamins, which could lead to deficiencies in B vitamins, folate, and iron.

Lack of heart-healthy fiber

In a new study of 100,000 people followed over the course of 26 years, researchers found no evidence that restricting gluten protects against heart disease. In fact, they said, the opposite may be true: relying on GF products may reduce your intake of whole grains, which are important to heart health.

Higher cost

“If you’re trading a traditional box of cookies or pasta for a gluten-free box, it’s going to be more expensive,” Kendall points out.

Still, many people swear by a GF lifestyle, reporting that it helps alleviate digestive symptoms. Experts responding in the Journal of Pediatrics say that “adults considering, or who have already implemented, a GF diet because of physical symptoms should involve a health care provider and also request testing for celiac disease.”

-- By Amy Sunshine

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