UMN expert: Gluten free diets not as healthy as you think

June 1, 2016

Although millions of Americans are cutting gluten out of their diets with the belief that it is a healthier dietary choice for themselves and possibly their children, they may actually be causing more harm than good. According to a recent MinnPost article and commentary in the Journal of Pediatrics, gluten free diets are not only a waste of money, but can also be unhealthy.

The article explains that in 2015 the United States saw a 136 percent increase in gluten free food products in the past two years, demonstrating how popular the gluten free diet fad has really become. However, is it necessary?

It is noted in the MinnPost article that only a small percentage of people in the U.S. need to maintain a completely gluten free diet for medical purposes, specifically celiac disease. Of the people who follow a gluten free diet, most of them are self-diagnosed.

Health Talk spoke with Catherine Larson-Nath, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist at the University of Minnesota

“There are cases when a gluten free diet is medically necessary such as in celiac disease, wheat allergy, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (gluten intolerance),” said Larson. “However, outside of these diagnoses, gluten is not harmful to the body and there is no evidence of any health benefit from a gluten free diet.”

Larson went on to explain that eating packaged gluten free food products can actually be worse for the body than regular foods containing gluten. “Processed gluten free foods are higher in fat and carbohydrates than their non-gluten free equivalent products.” In fact, some studies have shown association between starting a gluten free diet and developing obesity and metabolic syndrome.

“Additionally, many packaged gluten free products are lacking important nutrients such as iron, folate, B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin), and fiber leading to an increased risk of nutritional deficiencies such as anemia,” said Larson. The risks associated with gluten free diets can be serious for children, as children are going through rapid rates of growth and development and need to receive proper nutrients.

Aside from the nutritional risks, Larson explains that maintaining a gluten free diet can be socially isolating for children when they cannot eat the same foods as their friends.

For most people, gluten is not harmful to the body. However, those who do choose to eliminate gluten from their diets need to be cautious. Although gluten free diets can be done in a safe and healthy way, it can be risky.

Larson recommends that anyone cutting gluten from their diet do it under the supervision of a dietitian or physician to assure proper nutrition.