A gluten-free diet can be life-saving if you have celiac disease, but it can cause nutritional deficiencies in others.
What is it about the gluten-free diet that so many people find attractive? It’s restrictive, hard to follow and requires eating foods that aren’t always readily available. It limits a person’s food choices, and makes eating out difficult. Most people, when asked, don’t even know why they’re avoiding gluten.
The gluten-free diet is the only treatment for an autoimmune disease called celiac disease (CD). Though the prevalence of CD is increasing, it does not account for the tremendous growth in sales of gluten-free foods. Sales were $973 million in 2014 and are predicted to reach $2.34 billion in 2019, an increase of 140 percent.
There are no health benefits to avoiding gluten if there is no diagnosis of CD, and gluten avoidance can obscure a diagnosis of CD in someone who actually has the disease.
In a commentary published in The Journal of Pediatrics, Morelle R. Reilly of the New York- Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center lays out the facts and fallacies about this fad diet.
The Downside of Gluten-Free
Celiac disease is real, but far fewer people have it than the rush to gluten-free foods would suggest. When people with celiac eat grains containing gluten (wheat, rye, barley), their immune system mounts an attack on the small intestine which damages the structures that absorb nutrients. If not treated, it can lead to serious health problems. The only treatment is a lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet, which means avoiding all foods that contain wheat, rye and barley.
Another misconception about gluten is that it is toxic. There is simply no evidence to support that. But there is evidence that eating too many gluten-free processed foods may expose people to toxins like arsenic and mercury.
Parents may be tempted to put their children on a gluten-free diet after a relative is diagnosed with celiac disease, but that is unnecessary and not advisable unless the child shows signs of CD and is tested for it while consuming gluten.
There is no role for a gluten-free diet for children unless they have been diagnosed with celiac disease or have a wheat allergy, according to Dr. Reilly. The potential for nutritional deficiencies that could affect growth and development are far more serious than any perceived benefit of a gluten-free diet.