A UVA Heart & Vascular Center Initiative

Ask the Nutritionist: Should You Go Gluten-Free?

Posted March 06, 2018

It seems that everyone lately is jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon. But before you start cleaning out the pantry and spending big bucks on gluten-free goods, be sure you have all the facts. We spoke with Club Red clinical ambassador and registered dietitian Katherine Basbaum, MS, about the pros and cons of going gluten-free.

Can you tell us more about gluten and why so many people are going gluten-free?
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, rye, oats and barley. Approximately one percent of people in the U.S. have a condition called celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes them to have an adverse reaction to gluten. Left untreated, it can lead to long-term health complications. For those with diagnosed celiac disease, sticking to a gluten-free diet is the only option. However, there are many who have opted to go gluten-free who have no medical reason to do so. These people may believe that a gluten-free diet is more healthful, will help them lose weight or relieve digestive problems, but actually they may be doing themselves a disservice.

What are your primary concerns for patients without celiac disease who choose to adopt a gluten-free diet?
My concern is that for those that follow a gluten-free diet, instead of getting slimmer and healthier, they may find themselves sicker and fatter. Gluten-free diets are often lacking in fiber, which can increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease, and they are low in nutrients like calcium, iron, folate, B3, B12, Phosphorous and Zinc. A gluten-free diet can lead to potential weight gain due to lower protein content, as well as the addition of extra fat and starches added to make up for lack of gluten. And cutting gluten may result in a weaker immune system as beneficial gut bacteria is compromised — this bacteria thrives on gluten! Also important to note: a recent Harvard study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) concluded that the avoidance whole grains while on a gluten-free diet may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

What would you recommend for those who feel they are more sensitive to gluten but don’t have diagnosed celiac disease?
First and foremost, make an appointment with your doctor or dietitian. Do not self-prescribe or self-diagnose. If and when someone does decide to adopt a gluten-free diet, be sure to do the following: get whole grains wherever you can (brown rice, millet, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth); avoid gluten-free specialty products (these are generally low-nutrient, high-calorie and high-fat); and focus on real foods that are naturally gluten-free (fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, yogurt, nuts and beans).



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