- Gluten is a healthy part of most diets because it is found in high fiber whole grains.
- In fact, studies have found that eating a gluten-free diet can actually harm the health of the average person, as gluten-free foods are often processed and less nutritious.
- Only people with certain medical conditions – such as celiac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis – should be gluten-free, as the consumption of gluten can cause permanent damage to their digestive tract.
- This article was medically reviewed by Jason R. McKnight, MD, MS, a family doctor and assistant clinical professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.
- Check out Insider's Insider Reference Library for more advice.
Gluten is a common protein found in a wide variety of foods from bran flakes to pasta to beer. But does it really make you healthier if you eliminate it from your diet? Many Americans seem to believe this, as the number of people on a gluten-free diet has increased over the past decade.
But for most people, science suggests that gluten isn't really bad for you, and the gluten-free diet probably isn't worth it. Here's why.
What is gluten
Gluten is made up of hundreds of different but related proteins. It is found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. Many processed doughs use gluten to add flavor, improve texture, and achieve the desired baking properties.
Gluten most commonly occurs in foods such as:
- Flour tortillas
Is Gluten Bad For You?
There is no conclusive scientific evidence that gluten is bad for the health of the average person.
"There is evidence that overall health should focus on a complete, minimally processed plant-based diet that may include grains containing gluten," says Grace Fjeldberg, a registered nutritionist and nutritionist with the Mayo Clinic Health System.
What is a gluten-free diet and why isn't it for everyone?
In fact, a large study published over two decades in 2017 found that those who followed a gluten-free diet were more likely to consume fewer whole grains and therefore have an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
A 2017 review of the scientific literature also found that those on a gluten-free diet often consume less calcium, B vitamins, and fiber while consuming more fat and simple carbohydrates. That's because people switching to a gluten-free diet often reach for processed, gluten-free foods as the first step, says Fjeldberg.
Fjeldberg warns that food manufacturers often add sugar or fat to gluten-free ready-made meals to compensate for changes in texture when the gluten is removed.
A 2014 Canadian study confirms these claims. It found that gluten-free products have higher levels of fat and carbohydrates and lower levels of protein, iron and folic acid than their gluten-containing counterparts.
In short, if you are healthy there is no benefit in excluding gluten from your diet. However, if you do choose to eat a gluten-free diet, it is a good idea to speak with a doctor or nutritionist about how to increase your intake of nutrients like calcium, iron, and vitamins B6, B12, and D.
Who Should Avoid Gluten?
Although gluten is harmless to most people, those with certain conditions should avoid it. This includes those with celiac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis, and gluten sensitivity. For people with these diseases, a gluten-free diet is the only effective long-term treatment.
If you have a wheat allergy, you can opt for a gluten-free diet. However, this can be limiting. Instead, your best bet is to forego wheat, as you can still consume grains containing gluten like barley, rye, and oats.
People with Celiac Disease
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that damages the lining of the small intestine. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, it triggers an immune response in their small intestine that over time can damage the lining of the organs and reduce people's ability to absorb nutrients from food.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease include:
- Mouth ulcers
- a headache
- stomach pain
There is currently no cure for celiac disease. The only known treatment is a lifetime gluten-free diet.
People with dermatitis herpetiformis
Dermatitis herpetiformis is a condition in which gluten causes a severe rash on the elbows, knees, head, buttocks, and trunk. Most people with dermatitis herpetiformis experience the same damage to the small intestine as people with celiac disease.
Unlike people with celiac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis patients may not experience digestive symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, or constipation.
A gluten-free diet is recommended for treating dermatitis herpetiformis. However, medication can also help control symptoms in the short term.
People with gluten sensitivity
Some people may have a sensitivity to gluten that is different from celiac disease. However, symptoms of gluten sensitivity can be similar to those of celiac disease, including:
- Itchy skin
- Weight loss
However, unlike celiac disease, people who are gluten sensitive do not suffer any damage to their small intestine. If you think you may have gluten sensitivity, your doctor will most likely ask you to exclude certain foods, including foods containing gluten, from your diet in order to diagnose the condition.
The final result
For the average person, gluten is not bad for health. There is evidence that a gluten-free diet can reduce the consumption of much-needed vitamins and minerals and increase the intake of unhealthy fats and sugars. However, people with celiac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis, or gluten sensitivity should avoid gluten.