Why most people shouldn't follow a gluten-free diet

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Why most people shouldn't follow a gluten-free diet
There are plenty of gluten-free options out there, like bread made from non-wheat grains. iStock
  • Sticking to a gluten-free diet requires avoiding foods like bread, pasta, and baked goods.
  • But produce, quinoa, rice, buckwheat, and plain cuts of meat are naturally gluten-free.
  • Though a gluten-free diet is essential for people with Celiac disease, it isn't healthy for everyone.

If you've heard about the gluten-free diet, you might be wondering whether it's for you. There are common misconceptions about what this diet entails, who it's for, and the benefits that could impact your decision.

"A [strict] gluten-free diet requires avoiding all naturally gluten-containing foods and foods that might be compromised through cross-contamination," says Melanie Sherman, a Registered Dietician of Westside Nutrition and Wellness.

What to eat and avoid on a gluten-free diet

"Gluten is a protein found in some grains including wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and kamut and in extracts of these grains including some malt and yeast," Sherman says.

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Common foods that contain gluten include:

  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Dough
  • Many baked goods

But that doesn't mean all carby foods are off-limits. Some starchy foods that you can still enjoy on a gluten-free diet include:

  • Corn
  • Quinoa
  • Rice
  • Buckwheat

Thanks to the gluten-free diet's popularity, there are many products on the market that now advertise as "gluten-free." According to the FDA, a product can only be labeled as such if it meets the three following criteria:

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  • It contains no more than 20 parts per million of gluten, which is the smallest amount that instruments can reliably detect.
  • It does not contain any single type or combination of barley, rye, and wheat.
  • It does not contain an ingredient derived from barley, rye, or wheat.

However, a product doesn't have to always don the FDA-approved "gluten-free" label.

All plain cuts of fresh meat and produce are naturally gluten-free. It's when you get into more processed meats - like bacon, hot dogs, and sausage - and processed produce - like frozen, canned, or dried - that you should check the ingredients label before eating.

A gluten-free diet helps treat celiac disease

The gluten-free diet was first introduced by Williem-Karel Dicke, a Dutch pediatrician, in the early 1940s.

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Although the diet has since become a fad for weight loss, its original intention is to treat people who have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that affects 3 million people in the US, according to the FDA.

There are three foods people with celiacs disease should avoid:

  • Wheat, which contains gluten
  • Barley, which contains secalin
  • Rye, which contains hordein

"These three grains contain a certain peptide that can trigger a gluten-related reaction to those who suffer from Celiac Disease," says Brittany Modell, RD, and founder of Brittany Modell Nutrition and Wellness says

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Why a gluten-free diet is not for everyone

A gluten-free diet does not necessarily lead to weight loss, despite popular belief.

"In fact, some people with Celiac may find they gain weight as their digestive system finally heals and they are able to properly absorb nutrients," Sherman says.

However, people may find they have a sensitivity to gluten, also called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). They may feel less bloated after eliminating gluten, specifically, from their diet, Sherman says.

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Despite initial intentions, "recently the diet has been introduced for purposes of IBS, weight loss, inflammation, auto-immune disorders and other health issues," Modell says. And though, "those with IBS may also benefit from limiting gluten in the diet if their IBS is triggered, for example, by fructan," it's also not a cure for these conditions.

Quick tip: The low-FODMAP diet is another meal plan that is designed to help people with gastrointestinal symptoms linked to conditions like IBS.

However, both Sherman and Modell think a gluten-free diet is not a one size fits all diet that everyone should adapt to be healthier.

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Fore example, a 2017 study found that long-term gluten-free diets in people without celiac disease may increase risk of cardiovascular issues because eliminating gluten also means removing some healthful foods that provide vitamins and minerals.

"A lot of evidence points to the fact that whole grains in the diet are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cancer," Modell says.

If you're following a gluten-free diet, including gluten-free whole grains will help you meet your nutrient needs.

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Insider's takeaway

Although people with Celiac disease and some digestive conditions should follow a gluten-free diet, it isn't for everyone. Sherman says that it's unlikely that healthy people will benefit from a gluten-free diet and it isn't the best option for weight loss.

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