Celebrities and diet-fad enthusiasts have touted the benefits of a gluten-free diet in recent years, which might lead you to think this diet is a good choice if you want to lose weight or eat more healthfully. However, new research has emerged that suggests otherwise. Take a look at where this research came from, what it found, and how it should guide your food choices in the future.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. When flour from any of these grains is mixed with water, gluten molecules are activated, creating a network responsible for providing structure to bread products. Bakers can manipulate gluten to alter bread's elasticity, texture, and size through kneading and proofing.
Approximately 0.5 to 1.0 percent of the world's population has an autoimmune disorder called Celiac disease, where the body attacks the digestive system every time gluten is ingested. While not physically harmful to the body like Celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or intolerance can result in stomach and intestinal distress with the consumption of gluten. It's unclear whether these symptoms are related to the body being intolerant to gluten or processed wheat as a whole. Many people in the United States report experiencing gluten intolerance or sensitivity, and this phenomenon in part has led to the current popularity of gluten-free diets as an elective "healthy" eating strategy.
The Latest Research
In early March 2017, compelling research about the gluten-free diet was presented at the American Heart Association's Epidemiology and Prevention and Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health 2017 Scientific Sessions. Researchers based out of Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health studied whether there were health implications to following a gluten-free diet without a medical reason for doing so. This observational study looked at the gluten intake of nearly 200,000 participants over the course of 30 years.
The results noted that the participants with the highest gluten intake had a 13 percent lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes than those who had the lowest gluten intake. The study found that those with the lowest gluten intake also had lower overall micronutrient and fiber intake. Dietary fiber is known to have protective benefits against Type 2 diabetes. More research is warranted, as this study was observational, and gluten intake was determined from food frequency questionnaires, an imprecise measuring method. Also, because the data collection started 30 years ago -- before gluten-free diets became so popular -- the study has no data on those following a diet completely devoid of gluten.
What should you take away from this new research? In general, nutrition professionals wouldn't recommend following a gluten-free diet unless there are medical reasons for doing so. This is because many gluten-containing foods, especially those made from whole grains, provide a healthy dose of fiber as well as a unique variety of micronutrients vital to overall health. Unless you've been diagnosed with Celiac disease or gluten intolerance, there's no need to follow the diet.
With new research on gluten-free diets emerging, evidence is mounting against using a gluten-free diet for health maintenance or weight loss. Reminding yourself of the health benefits of common nutrients found in many gluten-containing foods is important when considering adopting a gluten-free diet. The most healthful way to include gluten in your diet is through incorporating whole-grain, minimally processed products.