Can A Gluten-Free Diet Be Bad For Your Health?

Avoiding gluten is a necessary precaution for those with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder which affects around 1 percent of the population. The condition creates an immune reaction to gluten, which can damage the intestine, prevent the absorption of nutrients, and lead to other medical complications.

But trends from recent years have shown a significant rise in gluten-free diets even though rates of celiac disease remained the same. Experts attributed the gluten-free trend to a number of causes. 

"First, the public perception is that gluten-free diets are healthier and may provide benefits to nonspecific gastrointestinal symptoms," stated a study from Rutgers University.

Athletes and celebrities like Novak Djokovic and Gwyneth Paltrow raised public awareness by adapting the diet themselves. Secondly, most major grocery chains have begun selling a gluten-free range of products while marketing them as healthier alternatives. Lastly, the study added there has been a rise in people self-diagnosing themselves with gluten sensitivity.

But how healthy is this diet for people without celiac disease? Is avoiding gluten as beneficial as the trends suggest?

So far, research has found the diet to be rather problematic. When food manufacturers have to remove gluten, they may end up adding more of other ingredients. 

"Often a gluten-free diet is full of processed and sugary food," explained Dr. Sara Gottfried, M.D. and New York Times best-selling author.

This can lead to a spike in blood sugar and affect the functioning of the body in the long-term. Reports have also shown increased levels of arsenic and mercury in the blood of gluten-free individuals. 

While many people believe avoiding gluten aids weight loss, a 2017 study suggested it actually increases the risk of obesity due to the high levels of fat and low levels of protein in gluten-free foods.

In the same year, another study by Harvard University linked this reduced intake of protein with the risk of type 2 diabetes.

"People without Celiac disease may reconsider limiting their gluten intake for chronic disease prevention, especially for diabetes," said Dr. Geng Zong, a Harvard research fellow.

He added gluten-free foods are high in cost but low on nutrients as they contain less of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber.

"The average American diet is deficient in fiber. Take away whole wheat and the problem gets worse," explained Dr. Daniel A. Leffler, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Those who have celiac disease may get their fiber from sources such as fruits, vegetables, quinoa, and beans.

The bottom line appears to be simple: "If you don’t have celiac disease, then these diets are not going to help you," as stated by Dr. Peter Green, the director of the celiac disease center at Columbia University.

Medical professionals stress on avoiding self-diagnosis or the adoption of a restrictive gluten-free diet without a medical reason. It is recommended people who suspect they might be suffering from celiac disease or gluten-sensitivity speak to a doctor and receive an expert-backed diagnosis.