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Benefits and Risks of a Gluten-Free Diet

by Russell Smith

In recent years, gluten-free diets have been the newest and hottest trend in weight loss. But what exactly is gluten, and is it good to have a diet free of it? Before you decide to hop on the bandwagon, you can find all you need to know about gluten-free diets right here.


What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in barley, wheat, rye, contaminated oats, and foods made with them. Many products that contain gluten are responsible for supplying the body with essential vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, iron, and fiber. Some studies have shown that the inclusion of whole grain foods into one’s diet can reduce the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. So, if gluten – or at least many foods that contain gluten – is beneficial, why has there been such a gluten backlash as of late?

The Gluten-Free Trend

Traditionally, only people with gluten intolerance or celiac disease eliminated gluten from their diet. Celiac disease is a condition where the autoimmune system reacts abnormally to gluten intake, and it’s a problem that affects 1% of Americans. In the case of celiac disease, as well as gluten sensitivity, individuals eliminate gluten from the diet because their bodies react negatively from its consumption, often causing headaches, gastrointestinal problems, sluggishness, and brain fog.

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But today, where the popularization of a gluten-free diet has been propagated by celebrity culture and media, who claim that the exclusion of gluten from one’s diet can shrink waistlines and improve overall health, even people with no adverse reactions to gluten have chosen to follow a diet free of the stuff. This assumption regarding gluten likely stems from the fact that many high-fat, high-calorie, or “junk” foods contain gluten; fried foods, cookies, cake, pasta, dressings, and some chips and candy are a few examples of this. Because gluten is found in these items, some individuals have chosen to exclude all foods containing gluten rather than only those that are high-fat or high-calorie. Others associate gluten-free foods with other “free” foods, like sodium-free or fat-free, and automatically assume that gluten is bad.

The Benefits of a Gluten-Free Diet

A gluten-free diet is a lifesaver for millions of Americans with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Even the ingestion of small amounts of gluten can disrupt the body’s functioning; if you’re experiencing unexplained gastrointestinal problems talk to your doctor about the possibility of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

For those without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it is (in a roundabout way) possible that practicing a gluten-free diet can improve certain aspects of your health. As stated, the primary reason that a gluten-free diet has become a trend is that it may eliminate the consumption of foods that are high in sugar and fat depending on what the consumer decides to eat. Eliminating these items from your diet can result in weight loss and improved energy levels, but it comes at a cost…

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The Disadvantages of a Gluten-Free Diet

The elimination of all foods containing gluten puts you at an increased risk for nutritional deficiencies. Grains supply the body with nutrients that are essential to bodily systems and proper functioning. Iron, calcium, fiber, riboflavin, niacin, folate, and thiamin are nutrients commonly found in foods containing gluten, and they’re all responsible for the proper functioning of the body. Doctors and nutritionists do not recommend anyone without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity to follow a gluten-free diet.

Another disadvantage is that gluten-free foods are more expensive than items that contain gluten. It’s a price that isn’t necessary to pay if you don’t have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease; if you want to lose weight, simply eliminate unhealthy foods from your diet. In addition, gluten-free alternatives to foods like cakes, cookies, and other pastries often contain more calories than their non-gluten counterparts, so it’s almost like you’re going out of your way to make things more difficult. According to Shelley Case, a registered dietitian and advisory board member of the Celiac Disease Foundation, a gluten-free diet can have other negative impacts, as well:

“Many packaged gluten-free products are even higher in carbs, sugar, fat, and calories than their regular counterparts, and they tend to be lower in fiber, vitamins, and iron. Gluten-free does not mean nutritious.”

If you want the weight loss that a gluten-free diet promises but don’t want to give up vitamin-rich foods, the most important thing to do is eat well. Healthy individuals without gluten sensitivity can simply eliminate or reduce the intake of fatty junk foods and experience weight loss. 

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The Takeaway

For people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, a gluten-free diet can work wonders. But for folks without these problems, there’s no reason to go through the hassle of completely eliminating gluten items from your diet. If your goal is weight loss, less expensive and more nutritious alternatives to the gluten-free diet are available; for example, fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten-free plus they’re packed with nutrients. In the end, the recent hype about the gluten-free diet has nothing to do with gluten: it’s about eating foods that are healthy and nutritional.

This article was reviewed and approved by Jill Weisenberger

Photos by JD Hancock

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