Written by Patricia Pauyo | Reviewed by Alyssa Tucci MS, RDN, CDN
If you’ve been following the recent nutrition trends, you might have seen an increase in gluten-free products and the promotion of their use. With the increasing number of published books, articles and many celebrities promoting a gluten-free lifestyle, you might be wondering whether gluten is bad for you.
The answer is: NO! - unless you have a gluten allergy (a.k.a Celiac Disease) or gluten sensitivity.
Gluten is a type of protein found in grains like wheat, rye, spelt and barley. It gives dough it’s elastic property and provides the chewy, satisfying texture that we find in bread and other wheat products.
There are many people who claim that a gluten-free lifestyle or diet comes with many benefits. These purported benefits include better sleep, more energy, weight loss and clearer skin. Some even claim that a gluten-free diet may lead to an improvement in arthritis or autism.
However, at this time there is no scientific evidence to support these claims. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “research has shown that adherence to the gluten-free dietary pattern may actually result in a diet that is low in carbohydrates, iron, folate, niacin, zinc and fiber” - all of which are necessary components of a healthy diet.
Although the majority of people do not need to avoid gluten, there are exceptions. It is estimated that less than 1% of the US population suffers from celiac disease, and another 20% are said to experience some degree of gluten sensitivity.
Individuals who have celiac disease require a gluten-free diet to be healthy. For these individuals, the ingestion of gluten can lead to severe inflammation and damage of their small intestines. Severely damage intestines causes malabsorption of necessary nutrients in the diet. People with gluten sensitivity are those that have tested negative for celiac disease but still experience similar symptoms such as stomach ache, gas and diarrhea.
For people suffering from celiac disease or other gluten sensitivity, gluten is toxic and should be avoided. However, those without this condition could be doing themselves a disservice if they unnecessarily eliminate gluten from their diet. In addition to missing out on important nutrients, many gluten-free products contain added sugar and fat to retain taste, which may lead to the adverse effect of weight gain.
It is extremely important to consult with a doctor if you suspect a gluten sensitivity or allergy. Otherwise, a good rule of thumb is to avoid the commercially prepared gluten-free products and focus on a balanced diet that just so happens to include naturally gluten-free foods like proteins, fruits, vegetables and whole grains.