Gluten: Friend or Foe?

Tracie Chavoor

Published on October 11th, 2016

In recent years gluten has gotten a lot of flack from the media - you probably know multiple people right now who are trying to adhere to a gluten free diet. The gluten free “fad” has become a multi-billion dollar industry with a majority of these consumers stating they believe the gluten free options to be healthier than their gluten containing counterparts.

Gluten is found in wheat, barley and rye and is a protein that gives dough a sticky consistency allowing it to rise without falling apart. After baking, gluten is responsible for bread’s amazing chewy texture. Gluten has been a part of our diet since the beginning of agriculture, which started about 10,000 years ago. While a majority of us have adapted to this protein quite well, about 10% of people are in some way gluten intolerant.

There are certain conditions in which a gluten free diet is necessary to be able to live a functional, healthy life. This includes people with Celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity or a wheat allergy. There is also evidence that following a gluten free diet can be beneficial for people with irritable bowel syndrome. There is mixed evidence on the benefits of a gluten free diet in people with autism and more research is needed in this area. However, there is no evidence that a gluten free diet is healthier for the general population

For the majority of us, cutting out gluten means cutting out a huge group of foods that are high in dietary fiber. It is estimated that < 3% of Americans consume enough dietary fiber - the average American eats 15 grams of fiber every day, which is far lower than the recommended 25-30 grams/day. Fiber is important for both heart health and gut health and in the prevention of gastrointestinal cancer.

Cutting out gluten also makes it difficult to get enough folate, riboflavin, thiamin, niacin and iron and people with gluten intolerance should take a multivitamin to supplement. Some people believe cutting out gluten can help in weight loss but there is currently no evidence to suggest this works. On the contrary, people with Celiac disease who start to follow a gluten free diet are likely to experience a slight weight gain (likely because of the improved absorption of nutrients with a healthier gut).

Lastly there may actually be health benefits associated with eating gluten! Some research suggests consuming gluten can help boost your immune system and improve your blood lipid levels, which decreases triglycerides and bad cholesterol and in turn helps with heart health!

So while I am not suggesting to eat all the wonder bread and pastries you want, you don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying a nice slice of whole grain, good-for-you bread.