Grocery stores are increasingly lining their shelves with gluten-free bread, chips, pizza crusts, cookies, and other gluten-free products. But are there benefits to cutting out gluten, the type of protein found in grains, such as wheat, rye, and barley? It’s what gives bread its chewy, fluffy texture that acts like glue to hold food together. But it’s also an indestructible molecule that can wreak some serious havoc when consumed by the wrong person.

Benefits of Going Gluten Free

Gluten is the only protein in food that’s indigestible and those who suffer from celiac disease experience adverse side effects from consuming  and — in severe cases —  touching  gluten. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, gluten can slip through the intestinal lining, causing chronic damage, inflammation, nausea, diarrhea, stomach pain, and vomiting in these sufferers. There's also some limited evidence suggesting that people without celiac disease can have a sensitivity to gluten, which still causes complications and forces them to live on a strict gluten-free diet.

Currently, there are no medications, treatments, or cures to successfully treat any form of gluten intolerance. But so long as they don’t consume any foods containing gluten molecules, both celiac disease and gluten sensitivity sufferers can live a relatively normal and otherwise healthy life.

But are there benefits for those who aren’t diagnosed with celiac disease or don’t have a gluten sensitivity? Since 2011, the gluten-free industry has grown substantially because of public demand. According to a recent Gallup survey, one in five Americans actively try to avoid including gluten in their diet, even if they don’t have celiac disease. There has been debate over whether going gluten-free is healthy in these cases or if it can create some unintended consequences.

"Yes, it's a popular diet of the moment, but it really does seem to provide some improvement in gastrointestinal problems for a segment of the population," celiac disease expert Dr. Daniel Leffler, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told Harvard Health Publications. "It takes a long time to learn how to live gluten-free. You'll have to become a gluten detective, scouring food labels and looking for hidden gluten.”

Gluten can help alleviate painful digestive problems, but it may also help reduce inflammation for certain people. Reducing starches and carbohydrates in the diet can help maintain weight loss or achieve weight goals, so long as you keep other healthy grains in circulation on a daily basis. 

Risks of Cutting Out Gluten

Those who choose to abstain from gluten without medical necessity run the risk of missing out on vitamins and other essential nutrients. The Mayo Clinic warns consumers that gluten-free products tend to be low on iron, calcium, fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate. The gluten-free diet can also come with the risk of malnutrition because it’ll mean skipping out on healthy whole grains.

“The average American diet is deficient in fiber,” Leffler said. “Take away whole wheat and the problem gets worse.”

To make up for this fiber shortage, you'll have to dedicate yourself to eating other grains, such as brown rice or quinoa, or certain fruits, vegetables, and beans. 

Gluten is also omnipresent in the traditional diet, making it a difficult food ingredient to cut out. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, gluten-free bread options made with white rice, tapioca, and other flours are becoming more common but it’s uncommon for them to be fortified with B vitamins like many wheat-containing breads and cereals.

"It takes a long time to learn how to live gluten-free,” Leffler said. “It's everywhere, in everything from frozen vegetables to soy sauces to medications. For example, a lot of ingredients that say 'natural flavorings' have barley as a base."

Additionally, the ingredients we use to replace gluten sometimes result in gluten-free foods that are tasteless or unappealing. Because of that, many of these products contain higher levels of sugar, salt, and other additives to make them more palatable.

Bottom line: Gluten-free diets don’t necessarily mean you’ve chosen a healthier route when you run the risk of losing out on essential nutrients. Aside from that, going gluten free isn’t easy, which is why those considering cutting it out should consult with a medical professional beforehand.