Is a Gluten-Free Diet Healthier?

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Various gluten free pasta, bread, snacks and flour on light gray background

If you’ve thought about going gluten-free, you’re not alone. In recent years, going gluten-free has received a lot of attention in diet information and product advertising. Its popularity has made lot of people wonder if going gluten-free is healthier. And with a huge increase in the number of gluten-free foods on store shelves and even pointed out on restaurant menus, some just assume it is.

Why Go Gluten-Free?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains. People decide to pursue gluten-free diets for several reasons.

Going gluten-free is an absolute must for individuals with celiac disease. For them, even the smallest amount of gluten triggers the body’s immune system to mistakenly attack the lining of the small intestine, resulting in malnutrition and severe illness. Celiac affects about 1 percent of Americans.

Some people choose to minimize gluten because they have a wheat allergy, gluten sensitivity, digestive issues, or to help reduce inflammation.

Lots of people just want to try it because it’s seen as a healthy fad.

Gluten: Good or Bad?

“There’s nothing inherently bad about gluten; it’s in many healthy foods that provide substantial nutritional benefits,” says University Hospitals dietitian Jayna Melatonis, MS, RD, LD.

Let’s compare gluten-containing foods and products with their gluten-free alternatives. It’s important to keep in mind:

  • Nutrients. Many processed gluten-free products don’t have the rich sources of fiber, vitamins and minerals of food products made with wheat (more about this to come).
  • Additives. A lot of processed gluten-free products contain sugar, fats and additives that aren’t healthy or can cause weight gain. Just because a product is labeled “gluten-free” doesn’t mean it’s healthier than its gluten-containing alternative. Like any processed food, it’s important to check the label on gluten-free products so that you know what you’re getting.
  • Cost. Like nearly all “diet foods,” the price of processed gluten-free foods is likely to be higher. Marketers know people are willing to spend more on products they think are healthier.

Fiber, Vitamins and Minerals

Many gluten-containing grains are rich sources of fiber. A switch from gluten-containing grains – say in bread or bakery products made from wheat or rye – to gluten-free might reduce a person’s fiber intake substantially and cause constipation.

Another plus for wheat is that, when processed, it is enriched with iron and B vitamins to restore its natural nutritional value. But that’s not true for all grains, according to Melatonis. Gluten-free grains and the products made from them tend to have less iron and B vitamins, so individuals on a gluten-free diet may not meet the daily recommendation for these important nutrients.

With the potential for nutritional deficits, Melatonis advises that it’s important to identify gaps through personal research or a conversation with a health care provider or dietitian. It may be necessary to increase the intake of fiber, vitamins and minerals from other food and supplement sources and look for gluten-free foods that are enriched.

To Gluten or Not to Gluten

“When it comes down to a choice for health, there’s no real advantage for the average person to restrict gluten, because gluten-containing foods are not unhealthy and they’re not bad foods,” says Melatonis. “Nutritionally, unless someone has celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, there’s no real reason to restrict gluten in the diet.”

Related Links

The Clinical Nutrition Department at University Hospitals provides comprehensive nutrition services to improve the health and quality of life for patients. Learn more.

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