Gluten-free diets are in vogue, pitched as a healthy way to eat and as a way to lose weight. An Internet search of the term “gluten-free” yields some 90 million results. More than 8,000 gluten-free foods are found on Amazon.com; sales of such products soared to $28 billion last year. Gluten-free items have also surged on mainstream restaurant menus over the last two years, according to a new report from a food industry research and consulting firm.
There’s one very good reason to avoid gluten, the main protein in wheat (and rye and barley): if you have a gluten-related disorder, notably celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease affecting about one percent of Americans. (This is different from wheat allergy and is not an allergic reaction.) Gluten sensitivity is a more poorly defined and debatable condition that’s estimated to affect about six percent of the population. This is also not an allergic condition.
But for the great majority of people, there’s no evidence that going gluten-free has any health benefits, according to Arizona State University researchers, who published a commentary in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2012 after reviewing the scientific literature.
Despite books and celebrities promoting it, a gluten-free diet is not a proven weight loss strategy, either. Gluten-free products are sometimes even higher in calories than their regular counterparts. And because most are made from less-healthful refined flour (albeit gluten-free flour), they tend to lack the fiber found in whole wheat and other whole grains that aids in weight control. Moreover, as the paper noted, some research suggests that wheat gluten itself may have health benefits (including triglyceride-lowering effects) and that going gluten-free may cause losses of beneficial intestinal bacteria.
Claims are also being made that celiac disease is on the rise due to changes in wheat breeding over the past century. But a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry disputes the notion that today’s wheat varieties have more protein—and thus more gluten—than those from the early 20th century.
Bottom line: If you have chronic indigestion or other symptoms suggestive of gluten sensitivity, consult your doctor and get tested before going on a gluten-free diet. (Long-term avoidance of gluten can interfere with the diagnostic tests for celiac disease.) If you have a medical need to avoid gluten, do so; otherwise, a healthy diet is one that is rich in whole grains, including whole wheat. If you’ve gone gluten-free and feel better, it’s likely because you’ve cut out a lot of refined carbs and other junk foods, not because you’ve eliminated gluten.