If the number of gluten-free products stocking store shelves and appearing on restaurant menus are any indication, then the general public has embraced gluten-free living. Many people eat gluten-free diets despite not having Celiac disease, which is a condition that requires people to avoid gluten. However, a voluntary gluten censorship may not be all that it's cracked up to be.
Less than 1 percent of Americans are gluten-intolerant or afflicted with Celiac disease. Despite this, the popularity of gluten-free diets tripled between 2013 and 2014, according to reports from The Kitchn. Although people who are sensitive to gluten may feel better avoiding it, Dr. Daniel A. Leffler, director of clinical research at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, has said others will derive no significant benefit from gluten avoidance and will simply waste money buying the more expensive gluten-free alternatives.
People with perceived gluten sensitives may not have aversions to gluten at all. According to a study conducted by Monash University and published in 2013, people with self-reported non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten only caused negative symptoms when subjects knew they were eating it. When they believe the food to be something else, participants experienced no symptoms.
Other medical experts say that gluten may not be to blame for sensitivity, which may be a result of fermentable, poorly absorbed, short-chain carbohydrates (FODMAPs), like grains, beans, dairy, and some fruits. By removing the grain (gluten included), affected individuals feel better, thinking gluten is to blame.
Those with no reason to avoid gluten could be putting their health at risk by skipping wheat and other grains. A recent study from Harvard Medical School says those who avoid gluten may be harming their heart health. The study, which tracked the eating habits of 64,714 women and 45,303 men over a period of 26 years, found that long-term avoidance of gluten in adults sometimes caused the reduced consumption of heart-healthy whole grains that affect cardiovascular risk. Study leader Andrew Chan said that individuals who consumed the lowest levels of dietary gluten had a 15 percent higher risk of heart disease. The study concluded that the promotion of gluten-free diets among people for whom it is deemed medically unnecessary to avoid gluten should not be encouraged.
There may be other reasons to continue to eat gluten. A study published in The British Journal of Nutrition, titled, "Effects of a gluten-free diet on gut microbiota and immune function in healthy adult human subjects," found a gluten-free diet may adversely affect gut flora and immune function. This potentially puts people at risk for an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in their intestinal biome. Another study published in Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry found that gluten may boost immune function. After roughly a week on added gluten protein, subjects experienced increased natural killer cell activity, which could be helpful in improving the body's ability to fight viral infections and cancer.
A gluten-free diet isn't necessarily a healthy one. While such a diet may be necessary for those with Celiac disease, unless a doctor has determined a person needs to avoid gluten, it is wise to include whole grains in a balanced diet.