It turns out that hard and fast gluten-free self-diagnosing might be downright dangerous if you're not careful. A study published in the BMJ this month warns that people going gluten-free who are not suffering from celiac disease could be increasing their cardiovascular health risk, apparently due to a reduced intake of whole grains (and not doing enough to replace the heart-healthy fiber those grains would normally provide).
Around one percent of Americans suffer from celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder where eating even a tiny amount of gluten triggers inflammation and intestinal issues. It's a real burden for those who suffer from it. But the number of people who don't suffer from the disease but choose to follow a gluten-free diet for other reasons has been on the rise. According to a study, .52 percent of the population without celiac disease maintained a gluten-free diet from 2009 to 2010. Between 2013 and 2014, that rate tripled to 1.69 percent.
The heart of the issue
If you're still not sure what gluten is exactly, you're not alone. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and a variety of ancient grains including farro. Ditching it became trendy when loads of people started claiming that doing so made them feel less sluggish, more alert, and helped them lose weight. And yes, these may be immediate outcomes of going gluten-free, but some of the feel-good symptoms are likely a result of cutting out unnecessary excess calories or processed foods (think cookies and donuts), and may have nothing to do with gluten.
The problem with people opting to go totally gluten-free when they don't need to, at least according to this study, is that there can be a risk for nutritional deficiences, namely a lack of fiber, due to a reduced intake of whole grains. The important thing in any diet is to make sure you have good balance—there's nothing wrong with cutting down on gluten intake, as long as you actively supplement with other fiber-rich foods, like an apple, which not only keeps the doctor away but also contains 4.4 grams of fiber.
Related: 12 Foods That Shouldn’t Have To Be Labeled "Gluten Free"
For the study, which was not funded by any industry interests, researchers began looking into the effects of going gluten-free among 100,000 people without celiac disease over the course of 26 years. They found that the lack of whole grains consumed by those eating gluten-free actually put people at increased risk of cardiovascular issues, because their intake of fiber went down significantly. "It appeared that those individuals who consumed the lowest levels of dietary gluten had a 15 percent higher risk of heart disease," Dr. Andrew Chan, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, told CBS.
The study adds that further research should be done to better understand their findings. Their preliminary results, however, indicate that going gluten-free unnecesarily can leave a person at risk of heart problems if they're not careful about replacing the foods they cut out with nutrient- and fiber-rich foods, since gluten-containing whole grains like barley, wheat, and rye come with some serious cardiovascular health perks.
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How to stay healthy
If you don't have celiac disease or another form of non-celiac gluten-sensitivity, try not to fear gluten, especially in the form of minimally processed, gluten-containing whole grains like freekeh, barley, spelt, kamut, and farro—all of which pack an awesome nutrient punch. (And check out our list of the 11 healthiest whole grains you should be eating.)
Related: 5 Best Whole Grains To Meal Prep, And Tasty Ways To Eat Them
That said, there are plenty of ways to counter these cardiovascular risks even without adding gluten back into your diet: researchers recommend upping your fiber intake via gluten-free whole grains such as oats, brown rice, quinoa, and millet.
But grains aren't the only answer. With a strategically planned diet loaded with plenty of fiber-rich fruits and veggies, you can easily hit your daily quota of 25 grams of fiber, and your heart should be in pretty good shape as a result. Avocados, split peas, lentils, raspberries (with a whopping 8 grams in just 1 cup!), pears, broccoli, artichokes, and brussels sprouts are all great, fiber-packed produce options.