Health & Fitness

Is eating gluten really bad for you?

Buckwheat tagliatelle, left, and chick pea flour pappardelle, both gluten-free pasta dishes.
Buckwheat tagliatelle, left, and chick pea flour pappardelle, both gluten-free pasta dishes. The New York Times File

According to a recent survey, more than 30 percent of Americans actively try to avoid eating gluten. A gluten-free diet has gained in popularity over the last few years, yet many still wonder, “What exactly is gluten and is it necessarily bad for you?”

Gluten is actually a protein that is found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. As such, gluten is present in many of the foods that most people eat every day and, in most cases, people tend to feel fine. That leaves us wondering why the perception might be that something found in so many common foods could be bad for your health.

We know from many scientific studies that consuming gluten is unhealthy for the approximately one in every hundred Americans who has a medical condition known as celiac disease. In individuals with celiac disease, gluten can cause a great variety of symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, and a swollen stomach, among others.

Dr. Miguel Saps.jpg
Miguel Saps, M.D., is the chief of the division of gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition in the University of Miami Health System’s Department of Pediatrics.

One might argue that a large percentage of the population has frequently experienced these signs and symptoms after eating these types of foods even if they do not have celiac disease. The difference is that these symptoms are much more severe and frequent in people who have celiac disease, which is why it is important to consult a doctor to understand the nature of the problem. The medical practitioner will conduct a physical examination and, in some occasions, may order blood testing and make a referral to a gastroenterologist.

Over the last decade, we have seen a shift in parents adhering their children to a gluten-free diet; and, a large number of new “gluten-free” products have emerged on the market. Although the surge of these products is great news for patients with celiac disease, misinformation about gluten has caused confusion in many. While it is clearly demonstrated that patients with celiac disease need to avoid gluten, it is still unclear whether individuals and children not diagnosed with the disease but believe themselves to be “gluten sensitive” actually benefit from complete gluten exclusion.

Most claims about gluten being “bad for your health” have been disproved or at least could not be proven in rigorously conducted scientific studies. A study of athletes on gluten-free diets did not show any benefit in athletic performance; yet, data from Australia and Canada reported that 41 percent of athletes maintain a gluten-free diet.

Multiple studies have shown that the perceived benefits of avoiding gluten in health are more likely due to the exclusion of other carbohydrates that are also present in gluten-containing diets. Some carbohydrates that increase gas production in the intestine and are not easily absorbed may be the reason why certain individuals avoiding gluten may report less abdominal pain and bloating.

Although the recommendations of adhering to a “gluten-free diet” are sometimes seen as benign, avoiding gluten in cases that are not medically necessarily may result in unnecessary imbalances in nutrients, minerals, and vitamins that can adversely affect a child’s health. In addition, gluten-free diets are much more expensive than regular diets.

Overall, removing all gluten can be harmful and expensive for many, but lifesaving for some. Individuals who have gastrointestinal symptoms and are thinking of modifying their diets should first consult a medical professional before making any health behavior changes. Treatment should always start by establishing a diagnosis and determining the needs of a particular patient. General recommendations by people without medical training can often times lead to misinformation.

Miguel Saps, M.D., is the chief of the division of gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition in the University of Miami Health System’s Department of Pediatrics. For more information, visit umiamihealth.org/treatment-services/pediatrics.
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