Lies People Somehow Still Believe About Gluten

Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

A diet without fluffy breads and starchy pastas is my personal hell. My deepest sympathies go out to people diagnosed with the three relatively rare conditions that require strict avoidance of gluten (the proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley that give bread that heavenly elastic quality).

If you're one of the people who have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon, your deprivation is (probably) doing you no good. 

“Unless you have celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or a wheat allergy, there’s no real reason to completely avoid gluten,” says Dr. Maureen Leonard, clinical director at the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at MassGeneral Hospital for Children. “We don’t recommend that anyone avoid gluten on their own or make a self-diagnosis of celiac disease without seeing a gastroenterologist.”

Still, increasing numbers of people are entering into a torturous world without focaccia, everything bagels, brioche French toast, and multilayer lasagna because they’ve bought into dubious health claims about gluten-free diets. Here are some of the biggest myths people believe about the protein that gives wheat its power.

Gluten-free diets are better for everyone

With restaurants offering special menus, grocery stores devoting entire sections to foods free of rye, wheat, and barley, and celebrities boasting about how amazing they feel on a gluten-free diet, it’s easier and more tempting than ever to cut gluten from your plate. But should everyone do it?

“No, a gluten-free diet is not better for everyone,” says Dr. Leonard. “We have no evidence to suggest that everyone should eliminate gluten from their diet.”

She maintains that only patients who’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or an allergy to wheat by a gastroenterologist should adopt this diet.

“The majority of individuals can eat gluten and not have any ill effects,” she says, adding that all foods should be eaten in moderation.

You'll lose weight if you ditch gluten

Everyone from Victoria Beckham and Miley Cyrus to that annoying coworker in the next cubicle seems to believe that ditching gluten will lead to a model body. But there's no current data supporting the idea that substituting gluten-free versions of pastas, pastries, and other carbs guarantee weight loss. The weight loss of those who have shed pounds on a gluten-free diet can usually be attributed to healthier substitutions of whole foods -- not the absence of gluten.

“If you start a gluten-free diet and replace glutinous foods with lean meats, fruits, and veggies, it’s quite possible that you’ll lose weight,” notes Dr. Leonard. “If you just replace your gluten-containing packaged and processed foods for gluten-free versions, it’s likely that you’ll gain weight. Since the gluten-free products don’t have gluten to make them stretchy and soft, they’ll often use extra fat, sugar, and flours that have less fiber to make them more caloric.”

Humans aren't meant to eat gluten

Cavemen didn’t eat linguini, so our bodies definitely haven’t evolved to tolerate newer types of food, right? Well, yes and no. According to Dr. Leonard, gluten is made up of amino acids that no one can completely digest, but that’s not cause for alarm.

“In most cases, the immune system sees gluten and can eliminate it with no issues. For people with celiac disease, gluten is seen as foreign material and the body attacks itself. A normally functioning human body can break it down and get rid of it without causing health effects,” she says.

Tell the naysayers that gluten-free muffins didn’t exist in prehistoric times, either -- ditto for wagyu beef.

Gluten-free foods are more nutritious

Fat-free, sugar-free, and now gluten-free: the misleading food-marketing strategies brands have adopted to convince people their processed, packaged crap is actually healthy. In reality, many gluten-free foods are fattier, more caloric, and less nutritious than their traditional counterparts.

“Gluten-free processed foods are not necessarily fortified with B vitamins and folic acids,” Dr. Leonard adds. “They may contain less fiber. They also may contain more sugar and more calories, so they are not healthier for everyone.”

A quick comparison of nutrition labels reveals all the facts; if you eat an entire box of gluten-free cookies because it's "healthier," you're only fooling yourself.

Gluten sensitivity doesn't exist

While doctors can test for wheat allergy and celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a trickier diagnosis, which has made some people question whether it exists at all. Dr. Leonard, though, says gluten sensitivity is indeed a real thing, and it’s only a matter of time before the medical community will find hard evidence for the condition.

“We certainly see patients in our clinics who feel ill and when we remove gluten from their diet, they are completely different,” she points out. “We do not have a very accurate way of making a diagnosis of gluten sensitivity except for ruling out celiac disease and wheat allergy as a cause of symptoms.”

So the lesson, as always, is that it's probably not a great idea to judge others for their food choices -- even if you don't necessarily believe they're totally forthright about their "sensitivity." In the end, it just means more French toast for you.

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Joni Sweet is a writer who would probably starve if she couldn’t eat gluten. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @JoniSweet.