What are benefits of being gluten-free?

Going gluten-free has become a popular dietary choice for many people. While only around 1% of Americans have celiac disease, which requires a strict gluten-free diet, an estimated 30% are actively trying to reduce or eliminate gluten from their diets. This article explores the potential benefits and downsides of following a gluten-free diet for those without celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. It acts as a glue that helps food maintain its shape and texture. For most people, gluten does not cause any problems. However, for those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten triggers an abnormal immune response that damages the small intestine.

Weight Loss

One potential benefit of going gluten-free is weight loss. Because many gluten-containing foods like breads, pastas and baked goods tend to be high in carbohydrates, eliminating them may automatically reduce overall calorie and carb intake. This can spur weight loss, at least in the short term. However, gluten-free substitutes like breads, pastas and baked goods are often just as high in calories and carbs. Weight loss still comes down to an overall healthy diet and lifestyle.

Reduced Inflammation

For those with gluten sensitivity, avoiding gluten may help reduce chronic inflammation. When they eat gluten, these individuals experience systemic inflammation that can contribute to joint pain, fatigue, headaches and skin issues. By removing gluten, many see improvements in these symptoms. However, for most healthy individuals without gluten issues, going gluten-free is unlikely to significantly affect inflammation.

Increased Nutrient Absorption

Gluten can damage the intestinal villi, which are tiny, finger-like projections that absorb nutrients from food. This is a hallmark of celiac disease. When the villi become damaged, nutrient absorption is impaired. For those with celiac disease, gluten abstinence allows the intestinal villi to heal and restores nutrient absorption. People without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity already absorb nutrients normally, so a gluten-free diet is unlikely to affect nutrient absorption for them.

Improved Digestive Health

Similar to nutrient absorption, a gluten-free diet may benefit digestive health for those with celiac disease whose intestinal villi have been compromised. Removing gluten helps heal the intestinal lining and improves digestion and bowel movements. However, for the majority of the population without gluten issues, avoiding gluten is unlikely to have significant digestive benefits outside of a placebo effect.

Increased Availability of Nutrient-Dense Foods

Following a gluten-free diet often involves increasing intake of nutrient-dense, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, nuts and seeds. For those switching from a standard Western diet high in processed foods, this can boost vitamin, mineral and antioxidant intake and provide health benefits. However, these benefits come from increasing whole foods, not eliminating gluten.

Potential Downsides of Going Gluten-Free

While there are certainly benefits for those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, going gluten-free can have several potential downsides:

  • Difficulty sticking to it long term
  • Social challenges when dining out
  • Higher grocery bills
  • Processed gluten-free foods high in sugar and low in nutrients
  • Potential for reduced gut microbiome diversity
  • May be low in B vitamins like folate, iron and fiber without enrichment/fortification

Additionally, some research indicates that following a gluten-free diet may be associated with increased levels of arsenic in urine. This could be related to gluten-free products made with rice flour.

Who Should Consider Going Gluten-Free?

Those with celiac disease or diagnosed non-celiac gluten sensitivity can benefit greatly from eliminating gluten. However, for the general population, cutting out gluten appears unlikely to have significant health effects unless processed, high carb foods are replaced with more fruits, vegetables and lean proteins.

Additionally, those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may consider a gluten-free diet alongside other dietary changes to manage symptoms. Some research suggests gluten may be a trigger for those with IBS.

The Bottom Line

For individuals with gluten intolerance or celiac disease, avoiding gluten is medically necessary and has clear benefits. However, for healthy people without gluten issues, going gluten-free does not appear to have significant health effects. That said, switching from processed foods to more whole, minimally processed gluten-free foods as part of an overall healthy diet can benefit anyone.

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