Is Gluten Bad for You?

We all know that a healthy diet makes a difference in how we feel, and can also play a part in our overall health throughout our lives. But what’s healthy? When you sit down with a friend and pull a turkey sandwich on rye out of your lunch bag, they may look askance. “Are you eating… gluten? I’ve given that up.” You thought you had a healthy, tasty lunch, but now you’re not sure.

Gluten is one of the substances that has become controversial. We all know carrots are our friends, but what about those whole grains? Is that gluten-free cupcake actually better for us? The more we hear about “wheat belly” and ancient grains, the more confusing it gets.

So is gluten bad for you, or is OK to eat gluten?

People think gluten-free foods are better for you

A 2015 Gallup poll found that one out of six Americans makes an effort to include gluten-free foods in their diet. A survey conducted by Consumer Reports found that 63% of Americans thought a gluten-free diet is better for your health than a diet containing gluten.

One of the things contributing to this belief is packaging. It’s not uncommon to see the words “gluten-free” alongside “natural” or “organic” on a package. This type of labeling doesn’t necessarily indicate a more nutritious product, although there are other benefits of organic foods. Consumers do, however, identify natural and organic foods as being healthier or more nutritious than other foods. When you associate “gluten-free” labeling with “organic” or “natural” labels, it’s easy to assume that gluten-free is healthier.

There are also anecdotes of people losing lots of weight by cutting out gluten, and popular diets that suggest gluten is bad for you. When people self-diagnose a gluten intolerance, start exercising, eating healthier, and stop eating pastries and pizzas, they find that they feel better, have more energy, and lose weight. This, however, is not proof that gluten is bad for you.

Or maybe you know someone diagnosed with celiac disease who was instructed by his or her primary care physician to cut out gluten. This is an instance when gluten is bad for you. Cutting out gluten from your diet without instruction from your doctor won’t necessarily provide health benefits, though.

Generally speaking, gluten-free foods aren’t inherently healthier than foods containing gluten. There are plenty of naturally gluten-free foods, such as fruits and vegetables, that are healthy. However, a gluten-free muffin isn’t necessarily healthier than an ordinary muffin.

What is gluten?

Gluten is the common name for proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale. Gluten is important to the texture of breads, pasta, and cakes. You can buy gluten to add to whole-grain breads, which can be naturally low in gluten.

But people don’t eat gluten with a spoon. When we eat gluten, we’re usually eating things like lasagne, cake, a cheeseburger, or some other prepared food. There are so many other ingredients involved that it’s difficult to isolate gluten as the problem.

Many foods are naturally gluten free. If you switch to a gluten-free diet of meat, fruit, nuts, and vegetables, you might feel better because you aren’t eating processed foods.

Is gluten bad for you?

People who have been diagnosed with celiac disease or who have been diagnosed with a gluten intolerance or gluten allergy should not eat gluten.

You shouldn’t self-diagnose celiac disease, a gluten intolerance, or a gluten allergy. If you believe that you shouldn’t eat gluten, consult your primary care physician.

Only a very small percentage of the population has celiac disease. While 40% of the population may have the genetic markers associated with celiac disease, only 1% of the population actually develops the disease. It’s diagnosed with a blood test, not after indigestion from eating foods that contain gluten.

Unless you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease, there’s very little evidence to support claims that gluten has a negative effect on your health. Does that mean gluten is healthy? Gluten isn’t healthy or unhealthy (unless you have celiac disease). It’s a protein, but it’s present in foods in such small quantities that it doesn’t provide protein in the way that an egg or a piece of chicken does. It’s low in fat and sugars, and –again — is eaten in such small quantities that it doesn’t have much nutritional effect on your daily diet.

But many foods that contain gluten are highly nutritious. Whole grains, for example, contain large amounts of soluble fiber. Giving up Twinkies to avoid gluten is probably good for your health. But giving up oatmeal or 100% whole-wheat bread to avoid gluten may not be a good decision, unless you replace those grains with an equal amount of other high-fiber foods like fresh vegetables.

Think about your overall diet. If you focus on lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and other unprocessed foods, you can eat whole grains without worry unless you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Choosing a gluten-free cupcake isn’t a healthier choice.