Gluten is a protein found in many grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. It can cause a serious allergic reaction in some, but to the majority of the American population without celiac disease, no serious harm will come from a moderate consumption of gluten products. A new study has found that 72 percent of individuals who have stripped this protein from their diets because of self-diagnosed "food allergies" do not meet the condition of having a gluten allergy. Many are choosing to eliminate the protein from their diets without really knowing what it is or how it affects their bodies. Now, researchers suggest that going gluten-free without speaking to a doctor first can actually do more harm than help.

The Study

Some choose to go without because they have heard that gluten is “bad for you.” While others believe they have an actual medical condition. In a recent study conducted in Australia, researchers interviewed people who claimed they were sensitive to gluten. The participants were questioned about their diet, their gluten-related symptoms, and any test that they had been given. A total of 147 volunteers took part in the study, most of which were women in their mid-forties.

Results from the study showed that the majority of participants didn’t meet the description of non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Another 44 percent had started their gluten-free diets on their own, and 21 percent started on the advice of an alternative health professional.

Do people even know what gluten is?

Late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel went a step further and showed that not only were many people unnecessarily removing gluten from their diets, but they also had no idea what the protein even was. Kimmel sent a correspondent out to the streets of LA to ask people who were gluten free, what gluten was. Answers ranged from “I really don’t know,” to “Like a grain, right?” When asked why they avoided it they answered, “It makes you fat,” and “My girlfriend from Russia is reading a book on it.”

Do Your Research

Health professionals will advise patients to remove gluten from their diets if they suspect the patient has a gluten allergy. The most common gluten allergy is celiac disease. In this condition, eating gluten triggers a negative immune response in your small intestines. Over time, this will damage the intestinal lining and prevent the absorption of nutrients. What this study has revealed is that some who don’t have celiac disease or haven’t ever been tested for their symptoms still believe gluten is the cause of their troubles. “There is a great deal of hype and misinformation surrounding gluten and wheat allergies and sensitivities. The group of so-called ‘non-celiac gluten sensitivity’ remains undefined and largely ambiguous because of the minimal scientific evidence," Jessica R. Biesiekierski told Reuters.

The Gluten-Free Diet

A gluten free diet is, as you may have guessed, one that excludes the protein gluten. This means avoiding beer, bread, cereal, pasta, and rice dishes that may contain another ingredient with gluten; rice itself does not contain gluten. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, only about one percent of the American population actually needs to avoid gluten. For these "true celiacs" the protein can make them so sick that they may die. For the rest of the 99 percent of us, switching to a completely gluten-free diet may be unnecessary. A common reason for going gluten-free is to lose weight. As Dr. Arthur Agatston, medical director of wellness and prevention for Baptist Health South Florida, explained in a CNN article, it’s not gluten that makes you fat, and some actually end up gaining weight after making the switch. Many gluten free-products are higher in saturated fat and sugar to make them taste better. However, these fats and sugars can cause weight gain, which will subsequently lead to other health problems.

Hidden Dangers

Researchers in the study warned that going gluten-free without consulting a doctor can make it harder to find the actual source of your symptoms. Often people who self-diagnose with gluten sensitivity often suffer from chronic conditions and have been trying unsuccessfully to find the reasons for their health problems. “Testing for celiac disease becomes less accurate and can take longer if gluten is already removed from the diet,” Biesikierski explained to Reuters.

Not everyone who is sensitive to gluten needs to be gluten-free. A gluten-free diet can actually nutritionally compromise your diet. A problem doctors are facing with self-prescribed gluten free diets is that is increasingly becoming a cover for true eating disorders. “With the eating disordered population, I’d say that 110% of them are used intolerances or food ‘problems’ as a means to avoid eating these foods in a socially acceptable way. Gluten just happens to be the fad right now,” Julie Dorfman, director of Nutrition at Philadelphia’s Renfrew Center, told Forbes.

Source: Biesiekierski JR, Peters SL, Newnham ED, Rosella O, Muir JG, Gibson PR. No Effects of Gluten in Patients With Self-Reported Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity After Dietary Reduction of Fermentable Poorly Absorbed, Short-Chain Carbohydrates. Gastroenterology. 2014.