Is a Gluten-Free Diet Healthy If You Don't Have Celiac Disease?

With the rising trend of gluten-free foods and the purported benefits of a gluten-free diet — like helping you lose weight or getting rid of bloat — it's easy to fall into the trap. However, is a gluten-free diet actually healthy for you if you don't suffer from a gluten intolerance?

When weighing your options about a gluten-free diet, it is important to make sure you're doing it for the right reasons. (Image: Getty Images/Istetiana)

What is Gluten and Who Should Go Gluten-Free?

As a registered dietitian, at least one patient a week asks me about the merits of going gluten-free. And many of the people asking these questions can tolerate gluten and are just looking for a quick fix.

But going gluten-free when you don't have a gluten allergy or intolerance involves unpacking what a gluten-free diet entails and investigating why you want to make that choice. Let's be clear: People who have celiac disease absolutely need to remove gluten from their diets and people who are intolerant may need to as well. People who have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) are sensitive or intolerant to gluten to a lesser degree than someone with celiac. Outside of that, it's important to think twice and make an informed choice before going gluten-free just for the sake of it.

Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder, where the body recognizes the prolamins — a type of plant protein — in gluten as a foreign invader and tries to fight itself. Gluten is a protein complex made up of prolamins and glutelins and is found in wheat, barley and rye, according to a February 2017 article in the Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. For people with celiac, gluten is incredibly damaging to the gut.

The gut is the largest immune mediator in the body and responsible for expressing many aspects of immunity and health, according to a 2014 study in the Biomedical Journal. In celiac disease, the intestinal walls have atrophied because of the inflammatory reaction in the presence of gluten-containing foods such as wheat bread, pastries and pasta.

As a result, the body doesn't absorb certain nutrients, resulting in nutrient imbalances, increased risk of osteoporosis, seizures, nerve damage and more.

Is Going Gluten-Free the Right Choice for Health and Weight Loss?

When we're considering our overall health, it's important to look at what foods are on our plates on a regular basis. Many people often resort to a gluten-free diet in hopes they'll lose weight. But removing gluten-rich foods may do your body a disservice.

Many gluten-free foods provide an abundance of added salts, saturated fats and added sugars to make up for the mouthfeel of the missing gluten. And eating too much salt, saturated fat and sugar has been linked to weight gain.

When it comes to packaged foods, the ingredient list will be the indicator of quality and healthfulness of the product. Some gluten-free packaged products may be lower in fiber, magnesium, and folic acid, all of which are necessary nutrients that maintain our health and may aid in weight loss.

Other vitamins and minerals that may be missing from unfortified gluten-free products include vitamin C, D, and B12, as well as calcium, zinc and iron, a December 2016 study in Clinical Nutrition states.

In fact, shunning gluten may compromise your heart health. An April 2017 study published in the BMJ studied over two million people and found that folks who avoided gluten but didn't have celiac ate fewer healthy whole grains, which may increase the risk for heart disease. The researchers conclude that people who can tolerate gluten should continue eating healthy gluten-rich foods.

Anyone that follows a gluten-free diet, whether they have celiac, NCGS or just because, should be aware of the possible deficiencies that can arise from eating too many processed gluten-free foods.

However, people who need to go gluten-free for medical reasons can do so in a healthy way — it just requires more effort to seek out packaged foods' ingredient lists and pay close attention to nutrition. Will you use naturally gluten-free options such as beans, starchy vegetables, quinoa, millet and whole-grain rice? Will you rely on whole and minimally processed gluten-free options? How often will you be using prepacked foods and what does the ingredient list look like? Adopting a gluten-free diet that supplies sufficient quantities of vitamins, minerals and fiber requires planning ahead and mindfulness.

The bottom line: Going gluten-free isn't advised if you don't have celiac disease or gluten intolerance. If you're still keen on cutting back on gluten a bit, the key to avoiding nutritional deficiencies associated with a gluten-free diet is replacing unhealthy gluten-rich foods such as pastries refined grains with healthy, fiber-rich alternatives.

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