Gluten isn't bad for most people — here's why a gluten-free diet may actually be worse for your health

Laura Lopez Gonzalez
·5 min read
SLicing fresh bread
Gluten isn't bad for you unless you have a condition like celiac disease. Mint Images/Getting Images
  • Gluten is a healthy part of most diets, as it is found in fiber-rich whole grains. 

  • In fact, studies have found that going on a gluten-free diet may actually harm the average person's health, as gluten-free foods are often processed and less nutritious. 

  • Only people with certain conditions — like celiac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis — should go gluten-free because eating gluten can permanently damage their digestive tract. 

  • This article was medically reviewed by Jason R. McKnight, MD, MS, a family medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine

  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.

Gluten is a common protein found in a variety of foods from bran flakes to pasta to beer. But does cutting it out of your diet really make you healthier? Many Americans seem to think so, as the number of people on gluten-free diets has grown in the last decade.

But for most people, science suggests gluten isn't actually bad for you, and the gluten-free diet probably isn't worth it. Here's why. 

What is gluten? 

Gluten is comprised of hundreds of distinct, but related proteins. It is found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. Many processed doughs use gluten to add flavor, improve texture, and create desired baking properties.

Gluten is most commonly found in foods like: 

  • Pasta

  • Cereals

  • Breads 

  • Crackers

  • Flour tortillas

Is gluten bad for you? 

There is no conclusive scientific evidence that gluten is bad for the average person's health.

"Evidence suggests that, for general health, the emphasis should be on a whole, minimally processed, plant-based diet, which can include gluten-containing grains," says Grace Fjeldberg, a registered dietitian and nutritionist with the Mayo Clinic Health System. 

 

In fact, a large study published in 2017 conducted over two decades found that those who ate a gluten-free diet were more likely to consume less whole grains and therefore, had an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

Additionally, a 2017 review of scientific literature noted that those pursuing a gluten-free diet often consume less calcium, B vitamins, and fiber, all while increasing their intake of fat and simple carbohydrates. That's because people who are switching to a gluten-free diet often reach for processed, gluten-free foods as a first step, Fjeldberg says.

Fjeldberg cautions that food manufacturers will often add sugar or fat to gluten-free convenience foods to compensate for changes in texture when gluten is removed.

A 2014 Canadian study backs up these claims. It found gluten-free products were higher in fat and carbohydrates and lower in protein, iron, and folate compared to their gluten-containing counterparts.

In short, if you're healthy, there is no benefit to excluding gluten from your diet. Still, if you choose to adopt a gluten-free diet, you should talk to a doctor or dietitian about how to boost your intake of nutrients such as calcium, iron as well as vitamins B6, B12, and D.

Who should avoid gluten? 

Though gluten is harmless for most people, individuals with certain conditions should avoid it. This includes those with celiac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis, as well as gluten sensitivities. For people with these illnesses, a gluten-free diet is the only effective long-term treatment. 

If you have a wheat allergy, you can choose to follow a gluten-free diet, but that may be limiting. Instead, it is best to just forego wheat, as you can still consume gluten-containing grains like barley, rye, and oats. 

People with celiac disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine's lining. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, it triggers an immune response in their small intestine, that over time, can damage the organ's lining and reduce people's ability to absorb nutrients from food.

Symptoms of celiac disease include: 

  • Mouth ulcers 

  • Diarrhea 

  • Headaches 

  • Bloating 

  • Abdominal pain 

  • Gas

There is currently no cure for celiac disease. The only known treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet. 

People with dermatitis herpetiformis

Dermatitis herpetiformis is a condition that causes gluten to trigger a severe rash on the elbows, knees, head, buttocks, and torso. Most people with dermatitis herpetiformis will also experience the same small intestinal damage as those with celiac disease. 

However, unlike people with celiac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis patients might not experience digestive symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, or constipation.

A gluten-free diet is recommended to treat dermatitis herpetiformis, although medications can also help control symptoms in the short-term.

People with gluten sensitivity

Some people may experience a sensitivity to gluten that is distinct from celiac disease. Yet symptoms of gluten sensitivity can be similar to those of celiac disease, including:

  • Diarrhea

  • Bloating

  • Itchy skin

  • Weight loss

  • Constipation

However, unlike celiac disease, those with a gluten sensitivity will not experience damage to their small intestine. If you think you may have a gluten sensitivity, your doctor will most likely ask you to exclude certain foods from your diet, including those containing gluten, to diagnose the condition.

The bottom line 

For the average person, gluten is not bad for health. Evidence suggests that going gluten-free may actually reduce consumption of much-needed vitamins and minerals, and increase your intake of unhealthy fats and sugars. However, people with celiac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis, or gluten sensitivity should avoid gluten.

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