Against the Grain: The Truth About Going Gluten-Free

In recent years, the development and market expansion of gluten-free products have proceeded at a rapid pace. As a result, such products are now almost ubiquitous in dining halls, restaurants, and the local Trader Joe’s. This growth of availability has come hand-in-hand with an increase in demand and popularity. A 2013 report by the NPD Group, a market research firm, found that one in three Americans were actively trying to avoid gluten in their diets. A 2015 Gallup poll found that one out of five Americans include gluten-free foods in their diets. These numbers reflect a significant embrace of the gluten-free diet. More importantly, they reflect an embrace by many who do not medically need to avoid gluten (about seven percent of Americans do).

However, the reason for this embrace is rather concerning. Rather than using scientific evidence to make informed dietary decisions, many have decided to avoid gluten simply based on media testimonials of the supposed benefits. The truth is that you should not pursue a gluten-free diet if you don’t need to. In fact, going gluten-free just for the sake of it can pose risks and is unlikely to bring about nutritional benefits.

In society, much has been said and heard about the supposed wonders of gluten-free foods. You’ll lose weight. You’ll feel more energized. Gluten-free diets have even been proposed as a treatment for autism. However, these claims have yet to be substantiated by research. On the contrary, experts have warned against cutting gluten-containing foods from one’s diet, provided that that person does not have a medically based gluten sensitivity. According to Dr. Benjamin Lebwohl, director of clinical research at the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, there is “no reason for someone who feels well to start a gluten-free diet to promote wellness. It is not an intrinsically wellness-promoting diet.”

There are several problems with avoiding gluten. First, as all grains and their associated products contain gluten, avoiding gluten necessarily means avoiding grains. By eschewing grains, one may compromise the quality of his or her diet. “The most common issue people run into when starting a gluten-free diet is fiber intake often plummets,” says Dr. Lebwohl. Fiber is important for digestive health, and its insufficient intake can lead to conditions such as constipation. Insufficient consumption of fiber is also likely to make you feel not as full, which then might lead you to eat even more, potentially leading to excessive caloric intake and weight gain.

With the average American intaking only half the amount of daily fiber recommended by the American Heart Association, taking away even more fiber from the American diet would not be wise. In addition, research has established a positive relationship between whole grain intake and a wide range of health benefits. High intake of whole grains correlates with lower risks of certain cancers, heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Avoiding grains could mean missing out on these important advantages.

Shunning all things gluten inevitably means finding substitutes to make up for the lost nutrition. Doing so is not easy. According to Dr. Lebwohl, “Gluten-free substitute foods tend to have more fat, more sugar and more salt than gluten-containing counterparts.” Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and author of the book The Truth About Food, notes that “a diet without gluten is most often associated with the exclusion of highly nutritious whole grains. Avoiding it systematically produces net harm both to diet and to health.”

Here at Penn, gluten-free foods can be easily found across the dining locations run by Bon Appétit. At Hill House, the dining hall’s daily choice of vegetable curry serves as just one example of many choices available with which a Quaker may go gluten-free. In general, however, gluten-free products seem to take a greater financial toll. Speaking with regard to those who voluntarily reject gluten, Daniel A. Leffler, director of clinical research at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, says, “They’ll simply waste their money, because these products are expensive.”

It’s easy to be a gluten-free Quaker, but it’s best to eat for maximum health benefits, while also saving some money along the way. So, if you don’t need to be gluten-free, don’t be.


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