But What If You Don't Have Celiac Disease? continued...
Gluten itself doesn’t offer special nutritional benefits. But the many whole grains that contain gluten do. They’re rich in an array of vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins and iron, as well as fiber. Studies show that whole grain foods, as part of a healthy diet, may help lower risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that half of all carbohydrates in the diet come from whole grain products.
To be sure, a few whole grains don’t contain gluten, including amaranth, millet, and quinoa. But they are far less common than gluten-containing grains. Meeting the dietary guidelines goal is very tough if you have to eliminate wheat, barley, rye, kamut, and other gluten-containing whole grains.
The Risks of Going Gluten-Free
Because wheat is ubiquitous in the American diet, completely eliminating gluten requires adopting a whole new diet. You would have to up most breads, crackers, breakfast cereals, conventional pastas, pastry goods, and a wide range of processed foods made with small amounts of gluten.
"And any time you eliminate whole categories of food you’ve been used to eating, you run the risk of nutritional deficiencies," said Green. A 2005 report from the American Dietetic Association warned that gluten-free products tend to be low in a wide range of important nutrients, including B vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and fiber.
There’s little point in taking that risk unless you genuinely have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. "Eating a healthy gluten-free diet means paying constant attention to what you eat. This isn’t something that anyone should do casually," said Green.
There’s also little point in eliminating just some gluten. For people who are sensitive, even trace amounts can cause damage to the small intestines. "So an almost gluten-free diet isn’t going to help if you have a problem."
Choosing gluten-free foods has another drawback. Most gluten-free alternatives, such as pasta and bread, are significantly more expensive than their conventional counterparts. A 2007 survey conducted by Green and his colleagues found that gluten-free pastas and breads were twice the price of conventional products, for instance.
The bottom line: If you think you may have a problem with gluten, get tested.