Can a Gluten-Free Diet Have Benefits for Everyone?
According to a 2013 study, more than 30% of Americans are trying to eliminate gluten from their diet, but only 1–2% of the population has celiac disease, and just 6–10% of the population has non-celiac gluten sensitivity. A whopping 63% believe that eliminating gluten would improve their mental and physical health. The gluten-free lifestyle is, without a doubt, one of the biggest health trends of the decade.
Many health experts, including Harvard Health, claim that gluten is safe for anyone who doesn’t have celiac disease. Other experts (including many health bloggers) say that consuming gluten can have negative effects, even for those who do not have an allergy to it. So is skipping gluten just a trendy dietary restriction, or can going gluten free actually make you skinnier, happier, and healthier?
What Is Gluten?
As defined by the Celiac Disease Foundation, gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat which help foods maintain their shape. Gluten makes up 75-85% of the protein in wheat and is what gives bread its soft and chewy texture.
Grains that have this naturally occurring protein are:
While oats don’t naturally contain gluten, they do occasionally cause a reaction in people with celiac disease, so it is not recommended that people with celiac disease consume oats in any form.
Gluten can also make a surprising appearance in these foods:
- Lunch meats
- Potato chips
- Soy sauce
- Most beer
- Imitation crab
- Chicken stock
Celiac Disease vs. Gluten Sensitivity
What’s the difference between celiac disease and gluten sensitivity?
Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the small intestine whenever gluten is ingested and in some cases can even cause a reaction when it comes in contact with the skin. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of celiac disease include diarrhea, fatigue, bloating, and anemia. If you think you may have celiac disease talk to your doctor immediately. Undiagnosed, this reaction to gluten can cause iron deficiency, osteoporosis, infertility, seizures, and many other long-term health conditions.
Also referred to as non-celiac gluten sensitivity or mild gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity can cause symptoms such as headaches, joint pain, brain fog, fatigue, and bloating. There is still controversy within the medical community regarding whether or not non-celiac gluten sensitivity exists, though many people report negative reactions to foods containing gluten. People with gluten sensitivity do not test positive on a celiac blood test or have the same intestinal damage as those with celiac disease, though they have many of the same lesser digestive symptoms including gas and bloating.
So, can going gluten free help you if you don’t fall into either of those categories?
Claim: Going Gluten Free Can Give You More Energy
Because few studies have been conducted on gluten elimination among the general population, much of the evidence regarding a gluten-free lifestyle is anecdotal. However, many people who have eliminated gluten from their diets report increased energy after the initial break-up period. Part of the reason abandoning gluten can give you an energy boost is that you’ll likely be eating more fruits, vegetables, and lean meats.
Simple carbs, while they provide a quick energy boost, are absorbed rapidly by your body. After a while, your blood sugar drops, causing you to feel tired and even irritable. By consuming fewer simple carbs (including many of the foods that happen to have gluten lurking in them like bread and pasta) and substituting more complex carbs (like sweet potatoes, lentils, and quinoa), you will have more sustained energy.
Claim: Going Gluten Free Can Reduce Inflammation
According to Rochelle Rosian, MD, a rheumatologist at Cleveland Clinic, “We know that certain foods are pro-inflammatory and that includes gluten-containing grains and the thousands of foods made from them.” One study found that fibromyalgia patients with no gluten sensitivity saw improvement in their symptoms when gluten was eliminated from their diets.
While people with celiac disease are more likely to have inflammatory autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, whether or not a gluten-free diet reduces inflammation in those patients has not been established scientifically. Foods that have been linked to inflammation through more thorough research are processed foods, foods with refined sugar, and many dairy products. Eliminating these can go a long way towards improving inflammation and overall health and will, by definition, result in a naturally lower consumption of foods that contain gluten.
Claim: Going Gluten Free Can Improve Digestion
If you don’t have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity but feel better when eating gluten free, it may actually be because you are consuming less fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols—also known as FODMAPs. These short-chain carbohydrates ferment in your gut and cause many symptoms linked to irritable bowel disease specifically a type of FODMAP carbohydrate called fructan. While relatively little research has been done regarding the effects of a gluten-free diet on the digestion of those without celiac or gluten intolerance a study did show that there is “considerable evidence supporting the low-FODMAP diet for IBS.”
Fructan isn’t only present in products containing gluten (though where there’s gluten there’s often fructan). It’s also naturally occurring in shallots, garlic, onions, cabbage, jicama, and other vegetables. Sensitivity to fructan causes symptoms identical to those of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, including bloating, gas, and diarrhea. Because fructan is often present in the same foods that typically contain gluten, it can be hard to tell which may actually be bothering you. Instead of simply cutting out all the foods containing fructan (many of which are nutrient-dense vegetables), talk to your doctor or nutritionist about trying an elimination diet to find out which foods are actually causing your digestive issues.
Going gluten free may provide a variety of health benefits even if you don’t have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, but not for the reasons you may think. By avoiding foods that typically contain gluten and choosing whole foods instead, you will naturally be avoiding foods that are more processed and often have sugar or high fructose corn syrup in them. Eating more vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts, and lean meats in place of processed foods will lead to more energy, reduced inflammation, and improved digestion.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.