by Angela Chen
In the past decade, specifically in North America, the gluten-free (GF) diet has become regarded as the new “healthy” way of eating. In fact, many restaurants now serve GF meal options, and gluten is sometimes regarded as an unhealthy component of our diets, even for people who do not have celiac disease (a medical condition that involves an immune reaction from eating gluten, which can lead to damage in the small intestine). Even though many individuals promote the GF diet, this widespread idea seems to be based more on single case studies or personal experience rather than overall research. Before eliminating gluten from one’s diet, it is pertinent to consider the potential harm it could cause.
A few recent studies have indicated that a low-gluten diet may compromise overall health. A study carried out by a collaboration between Columbia University and Harvard Medical school revealed that a low-gluten diet was related to increased heart attack risk. After following the diet and overall health of 100,000 people between 1982 and 2012, they found a correlation between people who had little to no gluten in their diet and those who experienced heart attacks or were more prone to them. Other research on the effects of a GF diet on gut microbiota and immune function are currently under analysis, but some findings seem to indicate that gluten is important for certain components of immune function.
Like many other health fads, it is difficult to find conclusive, long-term data regarding health benefits and risks because of the speed at which they gain popularity. For example, it used to be thought that there were many health benefits from drinking juice boxes, but this idea was countered by research that found that most juices contain excessive sugar content. Similarly, the negative health effects associated with using artificial sweeteners as sugar substitutes to reduce sugar intake also show that many health fads that increase in popularity exponentially are often not critically studied or analyzed. This lack of critical analysis may be a reflection of the general public’s desire to see immediate results rather than taking the time to make an informed decision.
Individuals who participate in a GF diet often eat GF substitutes. A 2015 systematic analysis conducted by Missbach and colleagues revealed that GF food substitutes have no predominant health benefits. Furthermore, replacing gluten-containing foods with GF food substitutes results in significant cost differences (increases range from 200% to 300% relative to the gluten-containing version of the food). GF substitutes are also high in synthetic hydrocolloids and gum. Therefore, individuals who do not have celiac disease do not seem to be benefiting from a GF diet. Additionally, by not allowing the body to metabolize gluten in a GF diet, the mechanism for digesting gluten weakens, which can result in celiac disease in individuals who previously could digest gluten. Developing celiac disease from a GF diet is highly preventable by allowing the body to process gluten if it is capable of doing so.
A final consideration is one surrounding public health. In her response to the gluten-free fad and the danger for celiac individuals, Grabowski commented on her distrust in restaurants to provide truly GF meals. She writes that although many restaurants have GF options, they may not be training and educating their servers on how to handle GF foods. It is not uncommon for servers to neglect to change gloves or serving plates, which often results in cross contamination. McIntosh et al. (2011) looked at 260 foods that were claimed to be gluten-free and found that approximately 10% of these samples contained gluten. For individuals who are not celiac, this cross contamination will go unnoticed; however, it places celiac individuals at risk.
In conclusion, while the GF diet may produce immediate, physical results and has become popularized by celebrities, research shows that it may cause more harm than good in the long run. Therefore, it is important for individuals to learn about the effects of the GF diet before excluding gluten from their diet. Rather than cutting gluten entirely, it may be beneficial to eat gluten in moderation. Just like any other foods, too much or too little is never good. Individuals should turn to research and credible physician recommendations before making a decision about their diet that will ultimately impact their overall health.