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Is gluten really that bad for you? We can't count the number of times we've heard someone say they're intolerant and get bloated after nibbling a little pasta or that they're giving up their slice of morning toast because they want to lose weight.
Over the past few years, we've been told that bread (and carbohydrates in general) can be bad for us—and the figures show that this has affected our shopping habits. Despite only one percent of people suffering from celiac disease, which is where your body is actually intolerant of gluten, and your bowels become inflamed from eating it, research shows that the global market size of gluten-free products in 2019 was estimated at $21.61 billion and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 9.2% from 2020 to 2027. In other words, the industry is expansive and ever-growing.
While some might see this as good news that we're all becoming more aware of our health and cutting out foods that are apparently no good for us, new research suggests that couldn't be further from the truth. In reality, following a gluten-free diet, unless for legitimate medical reasons, can actually do more harm than good. To sort the facts from the fiction, we've looked at the most recent scientific research, and chatted with a couple of doctors and nutritionists, to give you a better understanding of gluten and why you can start reaching for the pizza again without feeling guilty. Keep scrolling to find out why going gluten-free isn't exactly the wonder diet trick it's cracked up to be.
What Is Gluten?
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, "Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat (wheatberries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, KAMUT® Khorasan wheat, and einkorn), rye, barley, and triticale—a cross between wheat and rye." These proteins help bond food particles together to help the overall product keep its shape. Think about pizza dough, for example. Where regular dough is sticky and uniform, gluten-free dough is often more likely to crumble.
Does Gluten Make You Gain Weight?
Despite many a (slim) A-lister advocating a gluten-free diet, there isn't really any evidence to suggest that giving up the proteins found in wheat can help you lose weight. "You clean up your eating habits by taking away white flour, sugar, junk food, and other things you should be limiting anyway," says registered dietitian and nutritionist Jennifer Neily. However, when you go gluten-free, people tend to replace the lack of gluten with a bigger intake of the gluten-free products that seem healthy, thanks to the gluten-free halo effect.
Meet the Expert
Jennifer Neily, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and the founder of Neily On Nutrition.
In a 2017 study carried out by the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council of over 9,000 Australian adults, they found that eating core grain foods (read: gluten) isn't linked to the size of your waistline. In fact, researchers discovered that "adults with the highest intakes of core grain foods, which includes bread, breakfast cereals, and pasta, had similar waist circumferences and BMIs compared with adults who had the lowest core grain intakes." So far, it seems that we can indulge in gluten-rich foods without seeing a problem when it comes to the scales.
On the flip side, another study from 2017 demonstrated that there was a worrying link between avoiding gluten and type II diabetes. According to the study conducted by Harvard University, there was evidence that showed either eating small amounts of gluten or avoiding it altogether increases the danger of diabetes by as much as 13 percent.
Is Gluten Bad for Your Digestive System?
While many people might believe their digestive problems are caused by gluten, there is a theory that it's not necessarily to do with the gluten, but rather the sugars often present in the gluten-rich foods that can cause things such as IBS.
For example, some researchers believe that it's not gluten that causes IBS but FODMAPs instead. FODMAPs (aka fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) are found in many processed and non-processed foods but are often found in foods that also contain gluten.
These compounds pass undigested into the colon, where they are fermented by the bacteria that has colonized your colon. This process is normal, but the gas produced causes the bowel to stretch. As a result, some people, who are more sensitive to this reaction, suffer from IBS-type symptoms like bloating, cramping, and excess wind. (You can read more about how to follow the FODMAP diet, and which foods are right for you, here. You can also check out plenty of FODMAP books.)
But removing whole grains from your diet can have another undesirable effect. Gluten can be a major source of fiber that's integral to our bowels functioning properly, so this means that you might create other health problems. In a story published by Harvard Medical School, assistant professor of medicine Daniel A. Leffler, MD, explains that the average American diet is deficient in fiber. "Take away whole wheat, and the problem gets worse," says Leffler, who is also the director of clinical research at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
Meet the Expert
Daniel Leffler, MD, MS is Director of Research at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
The Final Takeaway
As much as you may hear that gluten is so awful for you, the science simply isn't there to back it up. In fact, the science that does exist shows that opting for a gluten-free diet when you don't physically need to can actually cause more harm than good. In a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, "restricting gluten may result in a low intake of whole grains, which are associated with cardiovascular benefits."
Believe it or not, the researchers say the risk of heart disease could actually be greater with a gluten-free diet, as those who "severely restrict gluten intake may also significantly limit their intake of whole grains, which may actually be associated with adverse cardiovascular outcomes."
That said, who's up for pizza?
Grand View Research. Gluten-free products market Size, share & trends report
Cleveland Clinic. The surprising truth about gluten-free food and weight loss. Updated April 15, 2014.
Fayet-Moore F, Petocz P, McConnell A, Tuck K, Mansour M. The cross-sectional association between consumption of the recommended five food group “grain (cereal)”, dietary fibre and anthropometric measures among Australian adults. Nutrients. 2017;9(2):157. doi:10.3390/nu9020157
Zong G, Lebwohl B, Hu FB, et al. Gluten intake and risk of type 2 diabetes in three large prospective cohort studies of US men and women. Diabetologia. 2018;61(10):2164‐2173. doi:10.1007/s00125-018-4697-9
Skodje GI, Sarna VK, Minelle IH, et al. Fructan, rather than gluten, induces symptoms in patients with self-reported non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Gastroenterology. 2018;154(3):529‐539.e2. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2017.10.040
Lebwohl B, Cao Y, Zong G, et al. Long term gluten consumption in adults without celiac disease and risk of coronary heart disease: prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2017;357:j1892.