Gluten-Free Diet: DEBUNKED

by Azeen Athar

A speedy trip to the grocery store to buy your favorite chewy, double chocolate chip cookies becomes an hour-long escapade when you find yourself in the depths of the mysterious, gluten-free aisle. As you place the gluten-free cookies in your shopping cart, you realize that there are a number of other gluten-free foods available: breads, cakes, cereal and pasta all in bright and colorful packaging. The possibilities seem endless. You have heard of the well-praised “gluten-free diet” making a triumphant wave throughout the nation, and you have even seen celebrities rave about it on talk shows. So, you decide to buy some more of these gluten-free foods because they are presumably “healthier.”

Unfortunately, this is a common misconception about the new “gluten-free” craze. As the national obesity rate continues to increase, the demand to lose weight does too. A huge influx of fad diets inundates magazines and numerous talk shows, featuring celebrities who are often unqualified to endorse them. Soon enough, most of the nation is misinformed, as is the case for the gluten-free diet. A gluten-free diet is most certainly beneficial and obligatory for those with gluten intolerance, but it has no nutritional benefits for those who do not.

Although 1.6 million people in the United States alone have eradicated gluten from their diets, many are still unaware of what gluten actually is. Gluten is an elastic protein made up of gliadin and glutenin. It is found in wheat, rye and barley. When wheat flour is mixed with water to make dough, it is the gluten that gives the dough its signature elasticity, shape and chewiness. Essentially, gluten functions as an adherent, giving structure to cereal, pasta, bread, crackers, sauces and numerous baked goods. In addition to food products, gluten can also be found in numerous cosmetic products and even envelope glue.

Based on its function, gluten doesn’t seem to be a harmful substance. Nonetheless, in some instances, gluten can be detrimental to one’s health. One percent of the American population suffers from a very serious condition called celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder. In response to gluten intake, small projections of the small intestine called villi become damaged, causing the malabsorption of essential nutrients such as iron, calcium and vitamin D. This can lead to an array of complications such as anemia, osteoporosis, malnutrition, weight loss, infertility and even cancer if gluten intake continues.

Digestive symptoms of celiac disease include gas, bloating, vomiting and constipation. These are also key symptoms among the 18 million Americans who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), a gluten intolerance that does not cause problems with absorption.

Cutting out gluten can be very limiting, but it is a mandatory, lifelong diet alteration for those with celiac disease. However, those who do not have celiac disease can digest gluten. According to Alessio Fasano, M.D., the Director of the Center for Celiac Research at Mass General Hospital, there is no medical reason to eliminate gluten if you do not have celiac disease. In fact, eliminating fiber-rich whole grains that contain gluten can be deleterious to health, due to deprivation of essential nutrients—iron, calcium and vitamin B12—that gluten-free products tend to lack.

Nutrients are not the only components that gluten-free foods tend to lack. Gluten-free foods need additional fats, carbohydrates and sodium to make up for the lack of taste and structure normally provided by gluten. According to a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, gluten-free foods contain more calories, fat and sugar than those with gluten, which may subsequently lead to weight gain. This finding debunks the common misconception that gluten-free products are “healthier” than regular foods.

Any processed food with high sugar and fat content is unhealthy, gluten-free or not. So why is it that non-celiacs who choose to go gluten-free rave about how great they feel or how much weight they lost? It is likely that they cut out processed, unhealthy foods that just so happen to contain gluten. Many foods that contain gluten are also often high in carbohydrates, sugar, fats and sodium, such as starchy pastas or desserts. Replacing these unhealthy foods with healthier alternatives leads to the accredited weight loss, not necessarily the gluten-free aspect of their diets.

There are a number of reasons why a gluten-free diet is not beneficial to those who don’t have some type of gluten intolerance. Nonetheless, new research has suggested that gluten may not even be the culprit for certain gluten sensitivities. According to Jessica R. Biesiekierski and colleagues of the Eastern Health Clinical School at Monash University, the digestive symptoms in those with NCGS may actually be attributed to a group of carbohydrates called FODMAPs, or Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols, rather than gluten itself. Those who have difficulty digesting these carbohydrates have bloating and other symptoms from foods that are high in FODMAPs, such as grains that contain gluten, but also foods that do not contain gluten: apples, pears, artichokes and soymilk.

For those who want to lose weight, going gluten-free could do more harm than good.  Instead, cutting out processed foods high in sugars and fats is key to achieving a healthier and more cost-effective lifestyle. Forthcoming research on the fad-diet may finally put an end to the villainous slander of gluten. Or, it may simply lead to the next fad diet spree.