After living the past four years of my life with celiac disease, I've learned a lot about how people feel about gluten. When I found out I really did have celiac disease, it was bittersweet. I could no longer eat my favorite foods, but at least I knew why I felt sick all the time.

The one thing I noticed when explaining my diet, especially at restaurants, is that people often roll their eyes and assume I'm a fad dieter. Those who chose to eat gluten-free with no recommendation from a medical professional add to that stigma and can make those with real diagnosable conditions feel silly for needing to make special requests from servers.

Not only can going gluten-free without a doctor make things harder for people with real allergies, but it can also be rather unhealthy for the person eliminating gluten from their diet. With four years of personal experience (and some extra research) I feel like I need to shed light on the truth about eating gluten-free.

What Is Gluten? 

rye, sliced loaf, sweet, cereal, flour, pastry, toast, wheat, bread
Christin Urso

Before joining in on the gluten-free fad diet, it is important to understand exactly what you're removing from your food intake. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye that gives bread, bagels and other wheat products their stretchy texture.

Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity

Gluten is a big problem for the 0.7% of the population, like myself, who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder that is triggered by gluten. When a celiac eats gluten, they cause permanent damage to the lining of their small intestine which, over time, can lead to a variety of more serious problems like infertility, osteoporosis, and seizures.

In addition to long term health problems, gluten is the source of extreme abdominal discomfort for many people with celiac disease. Gluten can also be troublesome for people diagnosed as gluten sensitive. This group often experiences the same stomach pain but without the long term effects. For anyone with a diagnosed medical condition, like celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, a gluten free diet is the only treatment available right now.

The Gluten-Free Fad Diet

There is a surging number of people, outside of those who eat gluten-free because of medical conditions, choosing to cut gluten out of their diet for a variety of reasons. There are numerous claims that avoiding gluten will improve your mood, help control weight gain, and even reduce cancer risks. While that all sounds nice, there is no research available to support any of these claims. The truth is researchers have found that eating gluten-free is actually unhealthier for those who have no medical reason to avoid it.

The Facts

Dr. Andrew Chen, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School discusses the risks associated with cutting gluten out of your diet. Research has shown that those who avoid gluten often end up eating significantly less whole grains which, Dr. Chen says, can increase the risk of heart disease. Dr. Chen also warns that by eliminating a large food group you may also eliminate important nutrients from your diet.

Without the help of doctors and nutritionists, available to those with medical diagnoses, people who choose to eat gluten-free may be harming their bodies with nutritional imbalances. After being diagnosed with celiac disease, I was given the chance to meet with a nutritionist who provided me with information about how to fill nutritional gaps in my diet cause by eliminating gluten.

Gluten-free diets can also be linked to constipation and undesired weight gain. It's a common belief that eating gluten free is, "healthier," but studies have found that that is not the case. Research has shown that the majority of gluten-free alternatives to wheat products are much higher in both fat and sugar in order to make them taste as good as possible. In addition to higher fat and sugar content, gluten-free foods often have between two and three times less protein than their gluten containing counterparts.

Suggestions for Those Who Are Gluten-Free by Choice

If you think gluten is the culprit of your dietary distress it is very important that you see a doctor before cutting gluten out of your diet. Once you have avoided gluten it is almost impossible to get a diagnosis of either celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. With an official diagnosis, you will receive help and resources from medical professionals that will insure you do not harm your body by cutting out gluten. 

There are still people out there who will continue to believe that, regardless of what doctors say, eating gluten free is the best choice. To those people I recommend they do some research and educate themselves about gluten and how harmless it is to the majority of the population. In the era of fad diets it can be very frustrating to have real medical conditions trivialized by those who self diagnose themselves as needing a gluten-free diet. So before you put yourself at risk for things like heart disease and nutritional imbalances, it is crucial you talk to your doctor or, at least, a nutritionist.