After my last quick post on the gluten-detecting device with no peer-reviewed science to back it, I wanted to quickly write about the other side of gluten-free diets as well—specifically, that there’s nothing inherently dangerous or unhealthy about them. I wanted to write this because I’ve recently seen a deluge of articles about gluten-free diets leading to heart disease, killing babies, etc., and I don’t want anyone to think any of those outcomes really have anything to do with gluten.
To be sure, there’s very little evidence that gluten is harmful for any except a small fraction of people who have celiac disease (estimated somewhere in the realm of 0.75% to 1.5% depending on the source and country). There is a chance that something like “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” could exist, but most studies on the topic have either shown a large placebo response or been able to trace the perceived sensitivity to gluten to other things like the fructans found in wheat, which some people do not have the gut bacteria to digest well.
At the same time, though, there’s nothing “healthy” about gluten, it’s just a neat little protein that leads to a number of delicious culinary creations. If you can’t or don’t want to eat it, you’re not opening yourself up to later disease.
If you looked beyond the headlines, you would see that the study that linked gluten-free diets to later chronic diseases really did no such thing. Rather, it noticed a correlation between those who eschew gluten and a reduced intake of whole grains—well, of course, since wheat and oats (often processed in the same facilities as wheat, though technically gluten-free) are two of the most commonly consumed whole grains. Diets that are lower in whole grains are then linked to heart disease and other poor cardiovascular fates, so there’s the correlation.
But the thing is, there are other healthy foods that offer the same benefits as whole grains, such as soluble and insoluble fibers. You can eat vegetables, or sweet potatoes, or other gluten-free grains such as teff or buckwheat. The point is, there’s a ton of ways to get the same benefits, you just have to do them. If you only replace gluten-containing foods with the gluten-free junk versions, though, then you won’t get good results long-term.
So really, the conclusion to draw here is that gluten-free junk foods are slightly worse for you than regular junk foods because they tend to have fewer whole grains. This isn’t saying much, though, because no one should be basing the health of their diet on their junk food intake!
As for the baby who died because the parent’s fed him a gluten-free diet, it should be clear that this wasn’t the fault of the gluten-free diet so much as parental negligence. Not only was the baby not fed gluten, it wasn’t fed any foods that a baby would thrive on as the parents fed him rice and quinoa milk. Babies have very stringent nutritional needs compared to adults, and without the right nutrients, they are going to suffer and possibly die. The story here isn’t to feed your baby gluten (though the most recent recommendations do recommend introducing wheat-containing foods at around 6 months), but rather to be sure to feed them all the other appropriate foods, most notably breast milk or an appropriate formula.
That’s all. Gluten is probably not dangerous, but it’s also not necessary.