These days the bread basket is practically obsolete. Roughly 100 million Americans say they’re working to eliminate gluten from their diets—even though only an estimated 1% of the population actually has celiac disease, the digestive disorder that’s triggered by the gluten protein found in wheat, barley, and other grains.
It’s no surprise then that gluten-free foods are a nearly $1-billion industry (and growing). Alessio Fasano, MD, founder and director of the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital and author ofGluten Freedom, doesn’t see it slowing down any time soon.
“Unlike other fad diets, there are people who actually need to consume gluten-free foods for medical reasons, so they’ll always be available,” Fasano says.
But if you don’t have celiac disease, is gluten-free really better for you? When you give up gluten, it becomes very hard to eat many traditional junk foods or other unhealthy snacks. For that reason, Fasano says he could understand the argument that gluten-free diets are healthy.
“But that’s not what the vast majority of people do,” he adds. “Most people embrace the consumption of gluten-free products such as pizza, pasta, beer, and cookies, and therefore going gluten-free isn’t better for you and in many ways can be worse.”
Of course, there are claims that ditching gluten also helps everything from your complexion to your cognitive health. So what can you actually expect to happen if you give up gluten? Here’s what.
1. You probably won’t lose weight.
Gluten-free doesn’t equal calorie-free. In fact, many gluten-free versions of foods contain more calories, more fat, more sugar, and more sodium than their gluten-ous counterparts to make up for the change in taste and texture that occurs when wheat is removed, Fasano says. Also, believing agluten-free food is good for you may incline you to eat more of it—to your waist’s detriment. If you’re giving up gluten, focus on adding more fruits, vegetables, and lean meats to your diet instead of replacing gluten-containing foods with gluten-free versions of the same processed products, Fasano says.
2. Your grocery bill may go up.
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Your wallet might be the first place you feel the effects of a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free products such as pretzels, pasta, cookies, and crackers cost two to three times more, on average, than their wheat-based counterparts, suggests a study in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. “Gluten-free foods are more expensive to make because they use special grains, and manufacturers have to follow specific procedures to avoid cross-contamination,” Fasano says.
3. Your tummy may hurt.
More than 90% of Americans fall short of meeting the recommended daily amount when it comes to fiber (25 g for women, 38 g for men),according to a study in the Journal of Nutrition. Grain-based foods account for about 44% of Americans’ already meager fiber intake. Choosing gluten-free foods can substantially slash the amount of fiber you’re consuming. Where it’s likely to take its toll: your gut. “Fiber feeds our microbiome,” Fasano says. Intestinal bacteria feast on fiber and produce a short-chain fatty acid called butyrate. “Butyrate keeps the intestines healthy and functional, so when there’s not enough of it you’re more susceptible to developing inflammation in the gut, irritable bowel syndrome, stomach cramping, and more,” Fasano says. Beans, legumes, vegetables, and brown rice are all good gluten-free fiber sources.
4. You’ll want to stay in bed.
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When you eliminate wheat, barley, and rye from your meals, you’re not just getting rid of gluten, you’re lowering your intake of a wide range of other nutrients that tend to come in those foods—naturally or through fortification—including iron, fiber, folic acid, zinc, vitamin D, and more. “When we have to put someone on a gluten-free diet because of celiac disease, we only do it with the supervision of a dietitian to make sure they make up the nutrients they’re missing,” Fasano says. “There’s no question that if you do it on your own without paying careful attention to filling in those gaps, you can develop a nutrient deficiency.” Signs of a deficiency include fatigue, weakness, hair loss, mood changes, constipation, and missed periods.
5. You’ll consume a lot more arsenic.
When manufacturers remove gluten-containing ingredients like wheat, they often replace them with a gluten-free grain like rice. The problem is that rice is a major source of inorganic arsenic, a mineral found in soil, fertilizer, and water that can contribute to lung cancer, bladder cancer, skin cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, according to data fromConsumer Reports. Spanish researchers found that following a gluten-free diet significantly increases the amount of arsenic that people consume.
6. You may increase your risk for cancer.
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One reason many people are going gluten-free: They’re following thePaleo diet, another popular diet, which advocates going grain-free (and therefore gluten-free). This caveman style of eating also encourages eating more meat. Unfortunately, pumping up your protein may boost your risk of cancer. In a recent study, people ages 50 to 65 who ate a high-protein diet in which at least 20% of their calories came from protein (mostly animal sources) were four times more likely to die of cancer, compared to people who ate low-protein diets, the journal Cell Metabolism reports. Researchers believe that high protein intake increases levels of the growth hormone IGF-1, which can encouragecancer cell growth. (They found no increased risk of death when people pumped up their protein from plant-based sources.)
7. You’ll feel happier.
While celiac disease affects about only 1% of the population, there’s another condition that up to 20 million Americans suffer from: nonceliacgluten sensitivity (NCGS). These folks don’t test positive for celiac disease, but when they eat gluten they experience symptoms such as GI distress, foggy mind, and depression. Italian researchers recently confirmed this diagnosis when they gave participants who believed glutenwas responsible for their symptoms a pill containing gluten or a placebo. Even though participants didn’t know which one they were taking, their symptoms were more severe when they swallowed the gluten-containing capsule. A study published in the journal Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics found people with NCGS experienced an increase in depression symptoms when they consumed a diet containing gluten. “We’re just beginning to understand the many different ways that glutencan affect the body,” Fasano says. “One of the most fascinating yet poorly understood issues is the relationship between gluten and the brain.”