This post discusses why there is no correlation between the gluten-free diet and heart disease. This post is not a substitute for medical advice. Please read my disclaimers carefully.
Earlier this year the British Medical Journal published an article, “Long term gluten consumption in adults without celiac disease and risk of coronary heart disease: prospective cohort study.“
The study rubbed me – and likely much of the gluten-free community – the wrong way.
The study concluded: “Long term dietary intake of gluten was not associated with risk of coronary heart disease. However, the avoidance of gluten may result in reduced consumption of beneficial whole grains, which may affect cardiovascular risk. The promotion of gluten-free diets among people without celiac disease should not be encouraged.”
Then the firestorm of horrid headlines ensued that only served to confuse and scare people following a gluten-free diet. The gluten haters now had fodder to bully their gluten-free friends:
- Here’s How a Gluten-Free Diet is Actually Bad for You (Maxim)
- If You Want to Avoid Heart Disease, Don’t Even Think of Going Gluten-Free (Reader’s Digest)
- Gluten-Free Diets Don’t Help Heart Health, Might Harm It (Reuters)
These sensational headlines would make any gluten-free person think twice about their gluten-free diet and might even have them running for a slice of pizza!
Am I really going to have a heart attack if I don’t eat bread? Holy cow, I’m gullible!
Let’s Take a Closer Look at the Conclusions
Conclusion #1: “Long term dietary intake of gluten was not associated with risk of coronary heart disease. However, the avoidance of gluten may result in reduced consumption of beneficial whole grains, which may affect cardiovascular risk.
First of all, most of us gluten-free folk eat plenty of whole grains. Don’t the researchers know that brown rice, millet, quinoa (actually a seed), buckwheat and certified gluten-free oats are all gluten-free whole grains?
If you can tolerate grains, there are plenty of gluten-free ones to enjoy. (It’s widely accepted in the medical community that a diet high in soluble fiber, the kind of fiber found in oats and flax seeds, can help deter heart disease.)
Second of all, the researchers clearly stated that the avoidance of gluten only MAY result in a reduced amount of whole grains which MAY affect cardiovascular risk. When I read such a wishy-washy conclusion, I can’t help but wonder how this article even got published!
Third, a growing pile of literature suggests that sugar plays a key role in many cardiovascular events. This should be of no surprise to you as the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar in one year, which is equal to three pounds (or six cups) of sugar per week according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The opposite of what is reported in this study might actually be true because when you eat less gluten, you may actually eat less sugar (white grains convert to sugar in your body).
Dr. Mark Hyman writes that 75 percent of people who end up in the emergency room with a heart attack have normal overall cholesterol levels but instead are pre-diabetic or type 2 diabetic.
Conclusion #2: “The promotion of gluten-free diets among people without celiac disease should not be encouraged.”
This second conclusion is really interesting to me because it’s not based on fact, it’s based on opinion. The researchers are basically saying that a gluten-free diet should not be encouraged for someone who wants to prevent heart disease, but it doesn’t say that if you fail to eat gluten you will get heart disease like so many of the sensational headlines suggest.
Not encouraging and not doing are two completely different things. If you actually take the time to read the research, you’ll find a slew of reasons to discount this study.
Take a look at these cited “limitations” of the study: “We did not specifically ask about the intake of gluten-free substitute foods, and participants were not asked about whether they specifically adhered to a gluten-free diet.” Um, seriously, you didn’t ask these questions? “…although we were unable to determine the association of a strict gluten-free diet with coronary heart disease, we did not observe any association of very low estimated gluten intake with coronary heart disease…” What? Really? Um, I thought this is what you studied?
The real conclusion should have gone something like this: Eating gluten-free has no significant impact on one’s risk of coronary heart disease.
Remember, this study doesn’t say you’ll have a heart attack if you’re gluten free. Or a gluten-free diet results in heart disease.
Wanna Know How to Really Prevent Heart Disease?
For me, the path to good health is through an anti-inflammatory diet filled with naturally gluten-free foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and nuts and seeds. I love to fill my plate with healthy foods, limit my sugar and meat intake, and drink plenty of green juices to rest and restore my digestive system. In moderation, I enjoy a gluten-free cookie, pasta or piece of gluten-free bread because I’m human.
So what really befuddles me is why these researchers aren’t spending their valuable time and resources on understanding how the gut microbiome works, or why people are having a hard time digesting gluten, or the real reason behind heart disease (it ain’t because someone is gluten free, honey). Wouldn’t it be awesome if researchers studied the benefits of kale vs. sugar on chronic disease?
Who Can You Trust When It Comes to Nutrition Information?
On top of that, it’s important to get your nutrition advice from those that know integrative nutrition – those that have been trained in nutrition and that treat food as thy medicine and medicine as thy food as the great Hippocrates would say.
Turn to those who look to change diets and lifestyles before prescribing magical pills and intrusive procedures to make you feel better. Remember, doctors have very little nutrition training.
On top of it all, pharmaceutical drugs kill 106,000 Americans per year. I’d much rather have a diet intervention than a pill – but that’s just me. No one died eating lots of vegetables, but apparently more than 100,000 people die from prescribed medications each year!
And above all else, please read Dr. Stephanie Chaney’s article, Is Gluten the Next Billion Dollar Hoax? The Evidence Is In. I will share a few paragraphs below because this article has impacted my thinking so much:
“What’s alarming and disappointing to me is how many doctors ‘pooh pooh’ the concept of gluten reactivity, especially among their chronically ill patients. Because of this disconnect, patients continue to suffer needlessly with chronic diseases that, with the removal of gluten from the diet, would in many cases, clear up or go into remission.
“Hundreds of my patients tell me that when they told their health practitioner they had eliminated gluten from their diet, the health care worker didn’t believe gluten would make a difference, or that since they didn’t have celiac disease, eliminating gluten wouldn’t help them. All this was said in the face of autoimmune diseases going into remission, or diabetes reversing right before their eyes, following the elimination of gluten from their diet.
“The issue is that many health care practitioners are just not keeping current with the research. As such, they are inadvertently preventing their patients from truly getting healthy. The additional travesty with this is that so many people look to their health care practitioners as ‘experts’. When these providers, who are not ‘experts’ in a particular subject, (in fact, many are completely ignorant of how dietary changes and supplement therapy can help people thrive) advise a patient against something that the research shows would likely help them, it becomes an issue of negligence and, quite frankly, laziness….
“Whether one is a doctor, a nutritionist, or a regular Joe, making statements about any subject without having researched that subject in earnest, is unethical, and may even be harmful. We have done the research and have seen first-hand, with thousands of patients reversing everything from psoriasis to diabetes, that eating gluten-free, while very ‘trendy’ right now, is a trend that is solidly backed up by the evidence.” Read the rest of this article – Go. Now. Read it.
Overall, if following a gluten-free diet makes you feel better, than don’t let this bogus study steer you off course or convince you otherwise. You know your body best. Trust yourself… and your gut.