By Leigh Savage
Is a gluten-free diet healthier? The short answer is no. The longer answer? For people with gluten intolerance or sensitivity, avoiding foods that contain gluten can greatly improve health and well-being. But for everyone else, cutting unprocessed gluten-rich foods likely won’t make much of a difference.
“People could wind up avoiding a lot of nutritious grains, and it’s possible to consume a lot of processed gluten-free food,” says Dr. Jana Morse, a physician specializing in internal medicine at PartnerMD. Gluten, a wheat protein, is often found in bread, cereal, pasta and oats and is often hiding in foods like hot dogs, beer and ice cream.
Celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disorder in which gluten damages the small intestine, is rare, estimated to affect one in 100 people worldwide, but gluten sensitivity or allergy may be more common that people realize – and they may be ignoring their symptoms or chalking them up to another cause. Morse says bloating, diarrhea, vitamin D deficiency and even depression and arthritis can be caused by an inflamed gut that is the result of gluten sensitivity. “People think, this is normal for me. But something is going on,” Morse says.
Are more people becoming gluten intolerant, or are we simply hearing about it more? Morse thinks its a combination of both. Because gluten coverage is common in the media, more people are learning about it and gluten sensitivity is being diagnosed more often. But she thinks it could be related to the foods we eat and the resulting microbiome we are creating in our bodies.
While the concept isn’t fully understood, researchers are looking into the possibility that that our highly processed diets are affecting our gut microbiome – the microorganisms in a particular environment, such as a human body – and making it more difficult for our bodies to process gluten. “We are dependent on bacteria to break down our food,” Morse said. “To preserve food, to give it a longer shelf life, we have to kill the bacteria.”
Every gut is different, and probiotic supplements seem to help some but not others. “The funny thing about humans is we can change our gut bacteria by changing what we eat,” she says. “Your microbiome will change accordingly.”
If you think you could be sensitive to gluten, Morse recommends seeing your doctor and asking to be tested for a gluten allergy. If you want to try to cut gluten from your diet, she suggests making the bulk of your meals vegetables, fruits and lean meats, ideally locally grown or raised.
Gluten-free breads and pastas can be helpful, but she says most people would be better off reducing the level of carbohydrates in their diet, as people tend to get far more than they need. Focusing on whole, unprocessed fruits, vegetables and lean meats can lower weight, reduce the risk for heart disease, and reduce inflammation, especially for people with gluten intolerance. “I’ve seen many symptoms completely turn around when people don’t have inflammation caused by a gluten allergy,” she said.