A lot of people go gluten free in hopes of feeling better, but few realize there are several dangers associated with the gluten-free diet that can easily be avoided given the right knowledge upfront. Discuss any diet changes with a trained doctor or nutritionist. Please see my disclosures.
When someone is diagnosed with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or an autoimmune disease, and they suddenly find themselves having to go on a strict gluten-free diet, they might find the transition easy, at least at first.
They know they have to avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and sometimes oats. And there are many products labeled “gluten free” to be found at the grocery store, making it easy to trade pizza or bread for a gluten-free version of pizza or bread instead.
However, before going gluten free, it’s essential someone becomes hyper-aware of the following risks that could sabotage their overall health and wellness despite being gluten free.
Danger #1: Lack of Fiber
Wheat contains important fiber and prebiotics that must be replaced once someone removes wheat from their diet.
In fact, a study published in Food & Nutrition found that gluten-free products contain less protein and fiber, and higher levels of saturated fat, carbohydrates, and salt compared to the gluten-containing products.
Without fiber, the digestive system becomes a mess because fiber is essential to regulating bowel movements and lowering the risk of constipation, hemorrhoids, colon cancer, and inflammation. Fiber also helps control blood sugar levels, cholesterol, and weight.
The average person needs about 25-30 grams of fiber each day; however, getting this level of fiber on the gluten-free diet is challenging because wheat, rye, and barley are the main sources of fiber in the Standard American Diet.
When switching to a gluten-free diet, many people don’t eat the normal amount of fiber their body is used to eating. This is why it’s essential for them to look to gluten-free sources of fiber instead, which include:
- Gluten-free whole grains and flours including oats (labeled gluten free), quinoa, wild rice, coconut flour, almond flour, and brown rice flour.
- Legumes, nuts and seeds, inclusive of beans, flax seeds, lentils, chickpeas, almonds, and peanuts.
- Fruits including berries, apples, bananas, pears, etc.
- Vegetables including peas, broccoli, potatoes (with skin), cauliflower, carrots, etc.
Unfortunately, most gluten-free packaged foods are made with white rice flour, which is devoid of fiber and nutrition. However, gluten-free products made with whole grains, beans, and seeds can ensure adequate daily fiber intake.
Furthermore, wheat is high in inulin, a prebiotic fiber known to support the good bacteria in the gut and which is essential for good gut health.
One study shows that prebiotic fibers are important in “increasing the numbers of bifidobacteria in the colon, increasing calcium absorption, increasing fecal weight, shortening of gastrointestinal transit time, and possibly lowering blood lipid levels.”
There are plenty of gluten-free prebiotic-rich sources beyond wheat, including:
- Root vegetables, including potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and beets
- Onions, leeks and garlic
- Fruits including bananas and watermelon
- Vegetables including artichokes, Brussels sprouts,
- Chickpeas, lentils and beans
- Oats (must be labeled gluten free – Are Oats Gluten Free?)
- Flax seeds
For more information about the importance of fiber and gluten-free sources of fiber, read Why Fiber Matters and a High-Fiber Gluten-Free Foods List. The USDA also offers a list of food sources that contain dietary fiber.
Danger #2: Risk of Nutritional Deficiencies
Typically when someone is diagnosed with a gluten disorder, particularly celiac disease, their nutrient tank is depleted. This is because gluten has impaired the function of the small intestine, making nutrient absorption impossible. Once someone with celiac disease stops eating gluten, their small intestine heals and nutrient absorption resumes.
However, a new kind of nutrient deficiency can form if the gluten-free diet is not implemented properly, and this is true in anyone on the gluten-free diet, celiac or not.
In fact, a large number of people on the gluten-free diet suffer from a lack of nutrients, and such nutrient deficiencies have been found to persist for 10 years after the implementation of a gluten-free diet if someone doesn’t take steps to enhance the nutrient density of their diet according to this study.
A 2022 study of Saudi Arabian women with celiac disease found that patients following a strict gluten-free diet did not meet the recommended dietary nutrient intake in all micro and macro-nutrients, nor did these women have sufficient levels of folate, iron, calcium, and Vitamin D.
U.S. companies are required to fortify cereals, and cereal grains like wheat, with vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B, vitamin D, iron, folic acid, and zinc. They’ve been doing this for 80 years to ensure Americans get essential nutrients.
However, many gluten-free cereal grains are not fortified because the U.S. does not require specific grains, such as amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, rice flour, oat flour, tapioca flour, almond flour, teff, sorghum or corn masa flour, to be fortified.
Most of the grains not required to be fortified are gluten free and found in many gluten-free cereals and products. This means someone on the gluten-free diet must get these nutrients from other sources or their health might deteriorate.
The key to a healthy gluten-free diet is to eat plenty of nutrient-dense, whole foods that are loaded with all sorts of important nutrients. A well-rounded diet consisting of lean proteins, healthy fats, gluten-free whole grains, fiber, and plenty of fruits and vegetables will generally lead to good health outcomes.
A lot of gluten-free eaters also take select supplements, such as a daily multivitamin, to ensure they’re getting the essential nutrients they need. Read this list of supplements for celiac disease and gluten intolerance.
Danger #3: Weight Gain and Increased BMI
A lot of people lose weight when they first go gluten free for several reasons. For starters, many cut out excessive carbs and sweets, at least at first, and this means they’re eating less empty calories.
Additionally, because gluten is a highly inflammatory food, cutting it out naturally calms inflammation. Inflammation causes redness and swelling, and excessive swelling can mean a person is holding on to 10+ pounds of inflammation weight that will go away as soon as the inflammation dissipates.
Unfortunately, many people new to the gluten-free diet swap gluten-free pizza for regular pizza, and gluten-free donuts for regular donuts, and therein lies the problem. When they start eating excessive amounts of sweets and carbs, even if they’re gluten-free sweets and carbs, the weight naturally comes back.
One 2022 study found women with celiac disease experienced an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, metabolic disorder, and cardiovascular disease due to the gluten-free diet.
Unfortunately, many gluten-free foods have been found to contain more sugar, fat, and calories than they’re gluten-y counterparts. One study found that gluten-free bread had a lower protein and higher fat content than gluten-containing bread. Lower protein and higher fat, along with nutrient-devoid rice flour and starches, can lead to unintentional weight gain.
The way someone on the gluten-free diet can keep their weight consistent, or even lose weight, is to avoid packaged foods and excessive sweets. Just because something is gluten free doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Nutrition label reading is just as important as checking labels for hidden gluten. And above all else, it’s important to remember that gluten-free junk food is still junk food.
Danger #4: Risk of Metabolic Syndrome
In one study, researchers found patients with celiac disease have a higher risk of metabolic syndrome after one year on the gluten-free diet. Specifically, they found that 22 percent of the participants experienced an increase in their BMI along with a four-fold increased risk of developing systemic hypertension after one year on the gluten-free diet.
According to the Mayo Clinic, metabolic syndrome is a variety of conditions that occur together, increasing one’s risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. These conditions can lead to increased blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels.
It’s extremely important that anyone new to the gluten-free diet seek out nutritional counseling. While it may seem “easy” to go gluten free given all the gluten-free labeled foods at the grocery store, the truth is that healing from celiac disease or gluten disorder takes more than swapping gluten-y junk food for gluten-free junk food and requires one to become wise in their food choices.
Danger #5: Excessive Exposure to Arsenic
Arsenic is found in nature and humans are exposed to it through their food and water supply. However, arsenic is carcinogenic and can damage the human body.
Rice soaks up arsenic more easily and at higher levels than other foods, and unfortunately, because gluten-free foods rely heavily on rice flours, gluten-free eaters are exposed to higher levels of arsenic as a result.
In fact, a study published in Epidemiology found that individuals who eat a gluten-free diet may be at risk for increased exposure to arsenic and mercury. The researchers say that such toxic metals can lead to serious diseases including but not limited to cardiovascular disease, cancer and neurological effects.
The Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program offers a few strategies for mitigating arsenic exposure in rice, including reducing one’s rice intake and instead eating other gluten-free grains such as gluten-free oats, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, corn, flax, teff, and quinoa.
The researchers also suggest using rice that is known to contain lower levels of arsenic, such as quick-cooking rice, instant rice, sushi rice, and/or basmati rice from India, Pakistan, or California.
They also say that rinsing rice before cooking it can reduce arsenic residue, and that cooking rice like pasta and draining the excess water before eating will cut the arsenic exposure from rice in half.
Is Gluten-Free Worth It?
Is the gluten-free diet worth it given these dangers associated with the gluten-free diet?
Overwhelming evidence suggests yes, demonstrating that gluten causes inflammation in all humans, not just those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Continuing to eat gluten can lead to a slew of annoying, painful symptoms along with a long list of life-threatening conditions.
Giving up gluten may be the magic bullet order that helps one live a long, healthy life. No one wants to live in a stage of morbidity for years before dying. This is why keeping preventable diseases at bay is essential to living long and dying fast (at a ripe old age, that is!).
Above all else, there is a right and wrong way to implement the gluten-free diet. A gluten-free diet that relies heavily on packaged foods, junk foods, processed foods, and sweets will deter healing and can lead to fiber and nutrient deficiencies, weight gain, increased metal exposure, and a slew of diseases.
However, a gluten-free diet centered on eating fresh, whole, nutrient-dense foods will not only deter disease, but also will promote health and longevity.
When going gluten free, seek out nutritional counseling from a trained health coach, nutritionist, integrative nutrition dietician, or a doctor to ensure gluten free is done right.
- The Benefits of Probiotics for Celiac Disease (and a list of gluten-free probiotic brands)
- 10 Facts Your Doctor Doesn’t Know about Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivities
- Beginners Guide to Gluten Free
- Supplements for Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance
- What Happens If You Eat Gluten With Celiac Disease?
- 12+ Must Read Books about Celiac Disease and Gluten-Free Living
- 10 Naturally Gluten-Free Foods Every Celiac Should Be Eating
- 200+ Foods You Can Eat on the Gluten-Free Diet