It's estimated that only 1% of the population suffers from celiac disease, yet roughly one million Americans say they're trying to nix gluten from their diet. Given they have no medical reason, it begs the question: Is going gluten-free really better for your health?
Prevention tapped Alessio Fasano, MD, founder and director of the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of Gluten Freedom, to set the record straight. Interestingly, Fasano says there are both pros and cons to skipping the bread basket. In addition to costing two to three times more than standard wheat products, gluten-free foods could alter your mood and energy levels.
Considering going gluten-free? This is exactly what will happen to your body.
"When we have to put someone on a gluten-free diet because of celiac disease, we only do it with the supervision of a dietitian to make sure they make up the nutrients they're missing," says Fasano. "There's no question that if you do it on your own without paying careful attention to filling in those gaps, you can develop a nutrient deficiency." Warning signs include fatigue, weakness, and inconsistent periods, he says.
It's believed that 20 million Americans suffer from nonceliac gluten sensitivity. Studies suggest that when these people eat food containing gluten, it can lead to feelings of mental fogginess and even depression. "We're just beginning to understand the many different ways that gluten can affect the body," says Fasano. "One of the most fascinating yet poorly understood issues is the relationship between gluten and the brain."
Gluten-free foods aren't necessarily better for you. In fact, they often contain more calories, fat, sugar, and sodium to make up for the change in flavor and texture. Fasano also cautions that the misconception that gluten-free equates to calorie-free could cause people to eat larger portions.
If you're considering a gluten-free diet, talk to your doctor about your best options.