Southern New Hampshire University
A gluten-free diet (GFD) is not an option for everyone, and despite the perceived health benefits promoted in the media and by food retailers, it can lead to serious harm in certain individuals. These risks include unintended weight gain and the lack of essential nutrient intake. In addition to it being cost prohibitive, research has proven that other undiagnosed health issues are causing the symptoms advocates are claiming it cures. They specifically include, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, fructose intolerance, lactose intolerance, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). After investigating the effects of GFDs in patients with celiac disease (CD), it is clear that the negative risks to the general population far outweigh the perceived benefits of cutting gluten out from their diet.
Gluten is a protein found in grains, such as wheat, barley, and rye. Sensitivity to it is nothing new, Leonard and Vasagar (2014) reported that adverse effects from gluten goes back almost 2000 years and even more so in the last 500 years as grain became more prevalent in the human diet (p. 26). However, the link between CD and gluten was not scientifically proven until the 1950’s and the GFD was born (Leonard & Vasagar, 2014, p. 26). The majority of research surrounding GFDs primarily focuses on patients with CD as it is the only known treatment for sufferers. While there is much needed research to see what effects it will have in people without a gluten sensitivity (GS), the existing data provides a great resource to weigh the good versus the bad of a GFD.
Weight loss is cited as a reason someone may begin following a GFD. A GFD is used to treat people, about 1% of the general population, with celiac disease: an autoimmune disease triggered by the ingestion of gluten in genetically predisposed individuals that affects the small intestine (Gaesser & Angadi, 2012, p. 1330). The immune system attacks healthy cells disrupting the absorption of nutrients and causes a wide range of symptoms that can affect the entire body (Whitehead, 2013, p. 31). People, especially those already overweight and obese, should be cautious because weight gain is an unintended consequence of a GFD.
According to recent surveys, approximately 30% of American would like to restrict gluten from their diets with about the same percentage believing that it will help them lose weight (Dunn et al., 2014; Strom, 2014). In their review of research, Gaesser and Angadi (2012) stated, “there are no published reports showing that a GFD produces weight loss in persons without CD or gluten sensitivity (GS)” (p. 1330). The authors questioned where the evidence was supporting these claims and concluded there wasn’t any and showed weight gain as an unintended consequence. The authors go on to state that gluten-free does not equate to lower calories and gluten-free products often contain higher calories. As Haupt (2012) summed it up in her article on GFDs, “a gluten-free brownie is still a brownie” (p. 1). This fact, along with the shortage of information by the general public surrounding what constitutes gluten-free, is by consequence causing unintended weight gain.
Whitehead (2014) analyzed and conducted research on the link between obesity, CD, and GFD. Her article presented evidence showing the potential for morbidity in already overweight patients. Both sets of authors reviewed the same research indicating that anywhere from 27% to 82% of patients with CD already overweight, gained weight when following a GFD. Based solely on her own experiences, Whitehead highlighted the problematic habit of patients reintroducing gluten into their diets in an attempt control reported weight gain. This interesting observation should be taken into consideration by anyone engaging in a GFD so they can better manage the probability of gaining weight. Research proves that patients with CD on a GFD will