Should I Go Gluten-Free Even If I Don’t Have Celiac Disease?

Mother and daughter in grocery store
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Gluten is a protein naturally found in many grain-containing foods, a simple product of food chemistry: gliadin and glutenin combine to form gluten, which is responsible for many of the wonderfully tasty properties foods like bread and pasta provide.

Only about 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease, a rare autoimmune disorder, and about 6 percent have a gluten sensitivity; both lead to a variety of gastrointestinal symptoms.

If you don't have celiac disease, are there benefits to going gluten-free? The True Health Initiative Council of Directors weigh in.

Joel Kahn, MD, FACC
Clinical Professor of Medicine (Cardiology), Wayne State University School of Medicine

If you are not celiac you should enjoy, not avoid, whole grains. Published data in large studies identify that whole grains

  1. improve heart health and lower the risk of heart attack
  2. lower Type 2 diabetes risk
  3. reduce cancer risk
  4. support optimal body weight, and
  5. promote a long life free of chronic diseases.

The recommendation of both the USDA and the Harvard School of Public Health is to fill 25 perent of your plate with whole grains and I agree. It's likely that increased whole grains in the diet often replace calorie-dense processed foods low in nutrients. The health implications of eating more whole grains in place of nutrition-poor options and the potential to reduce rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity are enormous.

 I prefer organic grains whenever possible because of reports of using Roundup before harvesting to prevent spoilage.

P.K. Newby, ScD, MPH, MS
Principal and Owner, The Nutrition Doctor; Adjunct Associate Professor of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health

The prevalence of celiac disease and related gluten disorders has risen in recent years, and many have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon as a result.

Are you among them?

The simple fact is that whole, unprocessed grains that retain their nutrients and fiber are part of a healthy diet for most people. Indeed, many Americans don’t consume the amount recommended for optimal health and disease prevention—and going gluten-free makes it even harder. As a result, those supplanting whole grains with other foods can end up having a less nutritious diet, perhaps forgetting about non-gluten containing options like quinoa or amaranth. Moreover, there is no evidence to show that gluten-free diets are particularly beneficial for weight loss, though you can lose weight on any diet as long as calories expended are fewer than those consumed.

Considering how what you eat makes you feel is always important, so if you’ve noticed a correlation with gluten-containing foods, it’s worth paying attention: gluten-related disorders are uncomfortable, and under-diagnosed. But seeing a physician for clinical testing, keeping a food diary, and thinking about your diet as a whole should be the first steps you take before cutting out entire food groups that might otherwise make it harder for you to eat a nutritious, balanced, and diverse diet.

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD
Nutrition Expert

Even though it is hip to go gluten-free, many people who are doing so don’t need to follow this type of restrictive diet plan. A gluten-free diet eliminates gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and is the primary mode of therapy for anyone with celiac disease. It is not a weight loss plan nor will it boost energy or treat autism.

However, some people have non-celiac gluten sensitivity and have shown improvement by limiting gluten in their diets. If you have symptoms associated with gluten ingestion, try eliminating it and see if the symptoms subside. Be forewarned that gluten lurks in all kinds of products and going gluten-free can be challenging and expensive.

It’s best to consult your healthcare provider if you suspect you are intolerant or sensitive to gluten to rule out celiac disease before going gluten-free, too.