Why Going Gluten-Free is Not a Good Choice For Everyone

As a culture, we have a tendency to demonize certain food groups. We like to think that by cutting a food group out of our diet completely, we can solve all our health woes. For a long time the food demons were fat and sugar, so people tried to remove these things from their diets. However, some fats are very beneficial, and there is doubt as to whether the corn and soy oils manufacturers now use instead of animal fats are any healthier than the animal fats themselves. It’s the same with sugar: replacing cane sugar with artificial sweeteners hasn’t really done anyone any favors.

At the moment, the devil du jour is wheat. If Dr. William Davis, author of the wildly popular book Wheat Belly, is to be believed, the plant that has sustained many cultures for thousands of years is literally an addictive drug.

“When you cut out wheat,” he says “you lose the insatiable appetite, the cyclic highs of blood sugar and insulin. Many people have told me that when they’ve eaten wheat, they couldn’t stop. Even if they ate a whole plate of pasta and felt stuffed, they wouldn’t stop.” 

Despite Davis’ claims, foods like whole wheat bread contain fiber, B vitamins, folic acid necessary to prevent birth defects, and protein. Fiber is especially important, as the American diet is deficient in it. The nutritional deficiencies of a wheat free diet can be solved by taking vitamin supplements and using fruits, vegetables or beans as a source of fiber, but this takes thought and effort.

There are people for whom a gluten-free lifestyle is a necessity. For members of the 1% of Americans who have Celiac disease, gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley) causes a reaction that severely damages the lining of the small intestine, causing debilitating pain. As little as 50 milligrams of gluten (a crouton or a splash of soy sauce) is enough to land someone with Celiac disease in the hospital. Some estimate that up to 16% of Americans have a related condition like gluten sensitivity, non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, or a wheat allergy.

However, in a recent poll conducted by the NDP Group, 29% of the adults surveyed said they wanted to "cut down or be free of gluten,” far more than the estimated amount of people with gluten intolerance. Many of the people switching to a gluten-free diet did so because they wanted to lose weight, boost their energy, or just feel healthier. 

Removing gluten from your diet is an arduous task. Gluten can be found just about anywhere: in bread, cereal, cake, pie, candy, cookies, crackers, croutons, French fries, pastas, salad dressing, sauces, gravies, lunch meats, beer, even medications and toothpastes. For the 300,000 plus people in America with gluten intolerance, their necessary diet can be a time consuming and expensive burden. The average gluten-free food item costs around 242% more than the same food item with gluten.

Dr. Daniel A. Leffler, director of clinical research at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, is worried about those who adopt a gluten-free lifestyle unnecessarily. He says, “People who are sensitive to gluten may feel better, but a larger portion will derive no significant benefit from the practice.”

He also encourages anyone who thinks they might have a gluten or wheat intolerance to visit a gastrointestinal doctor right away, before trying to remove gluten from their diet. Once a person hasn’t eaten gluten in a while, it becomes difficult to tell whether or not the person is gluten intolerant.

In short, the gluten-free diet is very good for some people, but at best unhelpful for those without gluten sensitivity. Now, it is true that people on gluten-free diets who are not gluten-intolerant often reap the benefits connected with cutting down on many unhealthful gluten products like chips, French fries, pizza, pretzels, and processed cakes and cookies, and also tend to add more fruits and vegetables to their diets. But I want to note that the reason processed pizza, cookies, or French fries are unhealthy is not because they contain gluten; it is because they have little nutritional value. You can eat in a way that is more balanced without swearing off bread or pasta.

If you suspect that you are someone for whom gluten is a problem, see a doctor. Chances are, going gluten-free will help you be healthier. But if you are sure that you are not gluten intolerant, go ahead and eat that sandwich on whole wheat bread, or dig into the al dente pasta with your grandmother’s sauce. It’s good for you.