Is Gluten-Free Good For You?
Yes and no, say Cleveland Clinic nutrition and heart experts.
Going gluten-free is making headlines as today’s perfect diet. From Olympic athletes to Hollywood stars and those who “just want to feel better,” a gluten-free diet is touted as the gold standard for becoming healthier. From claims of losing weight to improving cardiovascular health, many say removing gluten—the protein in wheat, barley or rye flour—is the answer.
In 2011, Americans spent $2.64 billion on foods and beverages without gluten, up from $210 million in 2001. But, is a gluten-free diet really the answer for good health? It depends, advise Cleveland Clinic Women’s Cardiovascular Center dietary experts.
A gluten-free diet was created for those who cannot digest gluten or break down proteins in grains, which is primarily people who are diagnosed with celiac disease or have a gluten intolerance called nonceliac gluten sensitivity, according to clinical dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD. “We wouldn’t prescribe it for weight loss or to manage cardiovascular disease,” she advises.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that destroys the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing nutrients from food. The disease affects about 2 million Americans or about 1 in 133 people, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Symptoms of celiac disease typically include diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating—signs that lead many to self-diagnose the condition and begin a gluten-free diet, states clinical dietitian Katherine Patton, RD, CSSD, LD. “The gold standard for a definitive diagnosis of celiac disease is biopsy of the small intestine,” she says. “Research shows that if you start restricting gluten from your diet based on the fact that you may have celiac disease, when you are tested for the condition the results may be false.”
Avoiding high-fiber whole grains are the foundation for a gluten-free diet—the very foods that Patton and Zumpano encourage for cardiovascular disease prevention.
“We need to be careful about recommending a gluten-free diet for those who think it’s the answer for cardiovascular disease prevention,” says Patton. “Not to say that gluten-free is a bad diet, but simple lab tests are the best way to tell if you’re truly gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive.”