Many people go gluten free in hopes of feeling better. Still, 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 your doctor or nutritionist. Please see my disclosures.
When someone is diagnosed with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or an autoimmune disease and suddenly has to go on a strict gluten-free diet, they might find the transition easy, at least at first.
They know they must 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, someone must become hyper-aware of the following dangers of the gluten-free diet.
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 gluten-containing products.
Without fiber, the digestive system becomes a mess. Fiber is essential for 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 primary sources of fiber in the Standard American Diet.
When switching to a gluten-free diet, many people don’t eat the average 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, including 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.
Most gluten-free packaged foods are made using white rice flour, which lacks fiber and nutrition. However, gluten-free products made from whole grains, beans, and seeds can ensure adequate daily fiber intake.
Furthermore, wheat is high in inulin, a prebiotic fiber that supports good gut bacteria and 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 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 correctly, and this is true for anyone on the gluten-free diet, celiac or not.
Many people on the gluten-free diet suffer from a lack of nutrients, and such nutrient deficiencies have been found to persist for ten years after implementing 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 didn’t 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, including 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 these 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 grains not required to be fortified are gluten free and found in many gluten-free cereals and products. This means someone on a 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, which contain all sorts of essential 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.
Many gluten-free eaters also take select supplements, such as a multivitamin, to ensure they get the essential nutrients they need. Read this list of supplements for celiac disease and gluten intolerance.
Danger #3: Weight Gain and Increased BMI
Many 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 fewer 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 traditional 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, their weight naturally returns.
One 2022 study found women with celiac disease experienced an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, metabolic disorder, and cardiovascular disease due to a gluten-free diet.
Unfortunately, many gluten-free foods contain more sugar, fat, and calories than their 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 flours and starches, can lead to unintentional weight gain.
Remember, just because something is gluten free doesn’t mean it’s healthy. The way someone on a gluten-free diet can keep their weight consistent or even lose weight is to avoid packaged foods and excessive sweets. Nutrition label reading is just as essential 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 and 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.
Anyone new to the gluten-free diet would be wise to seek 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. Unfortunately, because gluten-free foods rely heavily on rice flour, gluten-free eaters are exposed to higher levels of arsenic.
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 rice intake and eating other gluten-free grains such as gluten-free oats, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, corn, flax, teff, and quinoa.
The researchers also suggest using rice known to contain lower levels of arsenic, such as quick-cooking rice, instant rice, sushi rice, and basmati rice from India, Pakistan, or California.
They also say that rinsing rice before cooking 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 the dangers associated with it?
Overwhelming evidence suggests 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.
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!). Giving up gluten may be the magic bullet order that helps one live a long, healthy life.
Above all else, there’s a right and wrong way to implement a 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, and naturally gluten-free foods will deter disease and promote health and longevity.
When going gluten free, seek nutritional counseling from a trained health coach, nutritionist, integrative nutrition dietician, or 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
I’ve been dx CD for 24 years. I recently started using MyFitnessPal to lose a few pounds. I had figured out some of this but have been really well educated on just how much fat is in GF foods. This will be very helpful. I can’t digest beans so avoid that healthy food source and am not getting enough protein, fiber, or carbs. Too high on sugar and fat, as well.