Digestive Health

Gluten-free diets, what you need to know

Two hands holding a bowl with a gluten-free meal made with quinoa, spinach and vegetables.


Get the facts on going gluten-free and its impact on your health so you can make the right choice and live your best life!


By Laura Nahins, Registered Dietitian, Nuvance Health 


If you have ever considered going gluten-free then there are many things to consider. More and more health-conscious people are adopting a gluten-free lifestyle, especially those who suffer with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. But is a gluten-free diet healthier or just another trendy diet? Get the facts and learn if a gluten-free diet is right for you.


What is a gluten-free diet?


A gluten-free diet excludes gluten, a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. Gluten may also be hidden in other food items or non-food items, such as salad dressing, sauces, frying oils, lip balm and makeup. Gluten can trigger celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes gastrointestinal irritation and other health complications. 


For those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, a gluten-free diet promotes intestinal healing and relief, which is necessary to prevent reoccurring symptoms. However, some people who do not suffer from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity are now deciding to go gluten free.



Some people choose a gluten-free diet for personal reasons or weight loss. However, there is limited scientific evidence supporting its benefits for those without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. It is crucial to consult your doctor or a registered dietitian to ensure your nutritional needs are met when substituting gluten-containing foods with alternatives.



Who may benefit from a gluten-free diet?


A gluten-free diet can help individuals with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, as it alleviates symptoms and promotes intestinal healing. Those with a wheat allergy may also choose to avoid gluten-containing products. Some individuals with autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis might find symptom relief from a gluten-free diet. However, always consult your doctor or a registered dietitian before adopting this diet.



Benefits of a gluten-free diet


For those with gluten intolerance or celiac disease, a gluten-free diet can improve digestive health, reduce issues like bloating, gas and stomach pain and alleviate symptoms like diarrhea, fatigue, joint pain and headaches. Weight loss may also occur due to the elimination of processed gluten-containing foods, increased intake of nutrient-dense foods and reduced calorie consumption. 


However, the calorie content of gluten-free diets depends on specific food choices made. Often, gluten-free processed foods are higher in calories and additives, so it is important to consider the reasoning behind going gluten-free. Make sure you really need a gluten-free diet, since it is not always the “healthier” option, depending on food choices. 


Considerations for going gluten-free


Before going gluten-free, consider the risk of nutrient deficiencies, since gluten-containing grains are significant sources of nutrients like fiber, iron and B vitamins. Not all gluten-free foods are nutritionally equivalent to their gluten-containing counterparts, as some may have higher sugar, unhealthy fats, or lack important nutrients. Talk to your doctor before making any changes to your diet to support your overall health and well-being.



One thing to consider when eating a gluten-free diet is how these foods will affect you. Eating some gluten-free foods can lead to weight gain because they contain much more added sugar in place of fiber and whole grains, which contain gluten. 


Some processed gluten-free foods are more calorically dense and could contribute to weight gain. Another concern with gluten-free foods is some of the foods do not contain enough fiber, an important carbohydrate that helps promote proper digestive health. Those on gluten-free diets must eat more fruits and vegetables, which are naturally gluten-free, to meet their fiber needs.



If you are considering going gluten-free, you might want to watch your wallet, too. The price of gluten-free products is much more expensive than foods containing gluten. In a 2022 study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers found gluten-free breads were on average 4.59 times as expensive as gluten-containing breads by ounce. 


The average price of gluten-containing pasta across grocery chains was $1.30 per package, or 8.10 cents per ounce, compared to the gluten-free pasta prices of $2.62 per package, or 21.86 cents per ounce. Researchers found gluten-free pastas were on average 2.7 times as expensive as gluten-containing pastas by ounce. Researchers determined gluten-free bread and pasta are significantly more expensive than their counterparts.


Dispelling myths about gluten-free diets


Despite its popularity, there are misconceptions about the gluten-free diet. Eliminating gluten does not lead to withdrawal symptoms, and there’s no proven health benefit for those without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Gluten-free products are not necessarily healthier, as some may contain more sugar, fat and calories than their gluten-containing equivalents. Make informed decisions about your diet, always prioritizing evidence-based information.


The bottom line: While a gluten-free diet is essential for individuals with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or wheat allergy, its benefits for those without these conditions are less clear. It can improve digestive health and alleviate symptoms, but it is important to ensure nutritional needs are met and to avoid overly processed gluten-free products. Consulting your doctor or a registered dietitian is crucial before making significant dietary changes. Remember, a balanced and nutritious diet is key to overall health and well-being.