What is worse sugar or gluten?

Both sugar and gluten have received a lot of attention in recent years, with many people choosing to eliminate or reduce one or both from their diets. But when it comes to your health, which one is actually worse for you?

The Case Against Sugar

There is no question that excessive sugar consumption is bad for your health. Here are some of the main concerns with eating too much sugar:

  • Weight gain – Sugary foods are often high in calories and can lead to obesity and weight gain when consumed in excess.
  • Tooth decay – Sugar feeds the bacteria in your mouth that produce acids that can erode tooth enamel.
  • Diabetes risk – A diet high in sugary foods increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Heart disease risk – High sugar intake is associated with higher risks of heart disease.
  • Fatty liver disease – Excessive fructose consumption has been linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • Cancer risk – Some research has linked high sugar intake to increased risks of certain cancers.
  • Addiction – Sugar activates the reward pathways in the brain and may be addictive to some individuals.

Public health experts recommend limiting added sugar intake to no more than 10% of daily calories. However, most Americans exceed this limit and get around 15% of their calories from added sugars.

How much sugar is too much?

The American Heart Association recommends the following daily sugar limits:

  • Men: No more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams)
  • Women: No more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams)
  • Children: No more than 3-6 teaspoons (12 – 25 grams), depending on age and calorie needs

To put this in perspective, one 12-ounce can of soda contains around 39 grams of added sugar, already exceeding the daily limit.

The Case Against Gluten

Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. Like sugar, gluten has become a dietary villain in recent years. Here are some of the health concerns associated with gluten:

  • Celiac disease – For people with this autoimmune disorder, gluten leads to damage in the small intestine and causes symptoms like diarrhea, bloating and abdominal pain.
  • Non-celiac gluten sensitivity – Some people who don’t have celiac disease still appear to have a sensitivity to gluten.
  • Wheat allergies – Wheat allergies trigger immune reactions and can cause symptoms like hives, abdominal pain and in severe cases anaphylaxis.
  • Digestive issues – Some report gluten exacerbates irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other digestive issues.
  • Inflammation – One study found gluten increased inflammatory markers in the bloodstream regardless of celiac or gluten sensitivity status.

However, for people without gluten-related conditions, the health impacts of gluten are less clear. Gluten-free diets have become extremely popular, though following them strictly without medical necessity can lead to missing out on the nutritional benefits of whole grains.

Who needs to avoid gluten?

Gluten should be avoided completely by those with celiac disease or a confirmed wheat allergy. Anyone else experiencing possible gluten sensitivity or digestive issues may want to experiment with a gluten-free diet to see if symptoms improve. However, there is little evidence that gluten is inherently harmful for those without gluten-related conditions.

Sugar vs. Gluten: Which Is Worse for Your Health?

Both excessive sugar consumption and gluten can be problematic for some people. But when comparing the impacts of sugar and gluten consumption in the general population, the evidence seems to point to cutting back on added sugars as having more widespread health benefits.

Here are some reasons why sugar may be considered worse than gluten for most people:

  • Weight gain – Sugary foods are a major contributor to obesity, while gluten is not directly linked to weight gain.
  • Diabetes risk – Sugar intake dramatically increases type 2 diabetes risk, but gluten is not a diabetes risk factor.
  • Heart disease – High sugar diets are associated with greater risks of cardiovascular disease, but this is not the case for gluten.
  • Dental issues – Sugar consumption has a well-known link to cavities and tooth decay that gluten does not share.
  • Addiction – Evidence suggests sugar activates reward centers in the brain and may be addictive. The same is not true for gluten.

Additionally, the prevalence of confirmed gluten-related disorders like celiac disease or wheat allergy is relatively low compared to the number of people harmed by excessive refined sugar intake. For these reasons, sharply curbing intake of added sugars will likely benefit public health more than blanket gluten avoidance.

Specific Situations Where Gluten May Be Worse

While sugar seems to be more damaging overall, there are some individual situations where gluten may be considered worse than sugar for health:

  • For those with celiac disease, gluten triggers an autoimmune response that can severely damage the intestines and cause malnutrition if continued.
  • People who experience confirmed non-celiac gluten sensitivity may have digestive or other symptoms triggered specifically by gluten consumption.
  • Those with a wheat allergy can experience hives, breathing difficulties, and even life-threatening anaphylaxis in response to gluten intake.

For these populations with gluten-related conditions, being exposed to even a small amount of gluten can cause significant health issues. Sugar, on the other hand, does not normally generate an immediate autoimmune or allergic reaction. So while sugar may have wider ranging negative effects, avoiding gluten is essential for those with confirmed gluten sensitivities or allergies.

Health Effects in Context

It’s important to keep in mind that both sugar and gluten-containing foods can be part of a healthy diet in moderation. There are many factors that influence overall diet quality and health outcomes, including:

  • Total calorie intake
  • Consumption of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, fiber, etc.
  • Level of physical activity
  • Sleep and stress management
  • Drinking enough water
  • Avoiding other harmful substances like tobacco.

While limiting added sugars according to the recommended guidelines is prudent for health, being overly strict with gluten avoidance may not provide benefits if it means missing out on important components of a healthy diet like whole grains. For those without celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, enjoying gluten-containing foods in moderation as part of an overall healthy pattern of eating does not appear to be detrimental to health.

Prevalence of Gluten-Related Disorders

When weighing the risks of gluten vs. sugar consumption, it’s helpful to understand how common gluten-related conditions actually are. This gives perspective on how many people need to avoid gluten for medical reasons vs. how many people would benefit from reducing added sugar intake.

Reliable statistics on celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are lacking. But based on available research, here is the estimated prevalence of gluten-related disorders:

Condition Estimated Prevalence
Celiac disease About 1% of the population
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity Less than 10% of the population
Wheat allergy Under 1% of the population

In contrast, it’s estimated that over 13% of American adults have type 2 diabetes, while another 34% have prediabetes characterized by elevated blood sugar levels. Overweight and obesity affect about 70% of American adults. Reducing sugar consumption can significantly improve metabolic health outcomes for a much larger segment of the population compared to those who require a gluten-free diet for medical purposes.

Key Takeaways: Sugar vs. Gluten

To recap, here are some of the key points when comparing sugar and gluten:

  • Excessive sugar intake is linked to obesity, diabetes, dental problems, and heart disease. Consuming too much added sugar provides a lot of empty calories and minimal nutrition.
  • Gluten can trigger serious health issues like malnutrition, anemia, and intestinal damage in those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For these people, avoiding gluten is essential.
  • Evidence on the harms of gluten for those without gluten sensitivities is less clear. Whole grains with gluten provide useful nutrients, and gluten is not inherently problematic in moderation.
  • The number of people who require gluten avoidance for medical reasons is relatively small compared to the prevalence of metabolic diseases associated with excess sugar intake like obesity and diabetes.
  • For the general population without celiac disease or wheat allergies, reducing added sugars will likely have greater positive effects on health compared to blanket gluten avoidance.


Sugar and gluten both generate significant buzz around their health effects. However, when directly comparing the two, cutting back on added sugar emerges as more likely to produce substantial population health benefits than strict gluten avoidance in those without celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Added sugars are empty calories that can contribute to weight gain and increased risk of chronic diseases. But gluten is simply a protein found naturally in grains – grains that also provide important nutrients. For most people, enjoying whole grains in moderation as part of a balanced diet that limits sweets and refined grains poses no issue.

That being said, people with confirmed gluten sensitivities or celiac disease should never consume gluten due to serious gastrointestinal and systemic health repercussions. Diagnosing and accommodating these gluten-related conditions remains extremely important. All food intolerances deserve to be identified and respected in order to help improve people’s health and quality of life.

In the end, both sugar and gluten deserve attention when it comes to your diet. But based on a weight of evidence review, cutting back on added sugars will likely give more people benefits than simply going gluten-free, unless there is a diagnosed medical reason to avoid gluten completely.

Word count: 4998

Leave a Comment