Are Grains and Gluten Really Bad for Your Health?

Tuesday Oct 27 | BY |
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The gluten-free diet may be popular, but is it healthy for everyone?

Over the past few years, the gluten-free market has exploded. Between 2009 and 2014, sales of gluten-free foods grew 34 percent annually, reaching $973 million. Sales are expected to increase by 19 percent each year, reaching an estimated $2.34 billion in 2019—a 140 percent increase over 2014.

Why the gluten-free craze? Those with celiac disease (a serious autoimmune disorder that triggers painful digestive inflammation and pain) need to avoid gluten to avoid symptoms, but they’ve always needed to do so. The disease is thousands of years old, though doctors finalized diagnostic criteria in the 1960s. It was at that time that it became clear that gluten triggered symptoms of celiac disease, and that by avoiding it, patients could feel better.

It took several more decades, however, before doctors really became aware of celiac disease and its signs in their patients. Digestive symptoms were often blamed on other conditions and celiac rarely considered until the early 2000s, after a comprehensive study showed that one in every 133 people had celiac disease.

“Celiac disease appears to be a more common but neglected disorder than has generally been recognized in the United States,” researchers wrote.

After that, awareness became more widespread, and celiac diagnoses increased accordingly. Still, less than one percent of Americans have celiac disease, but according to a 2013 poll, 30 percent of American adults are trying to avoid gluten.

Why? Is gluten really bad for everyone?

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, triticale and their variations. It’s often described as a “glue that holds foods together,” affecting the plasticity of dough, and the chewiness of baked products.

Those with celiac disease have an abnormal immune response to gluten when it’s digested. The immune system attacks what it thinks are foreign invaders, creating inflammation in the intestines and leading to uncomfortable symptoms like abdominal bloating and pain, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, fatigue, weight loss, joint pain, and more.

To avoid these symptoms, those with celiac avoid the foods that contain gluten. That used to be rather difficult, since wheat and its various forms (durum, farina, etc.), barley, rye, and triticale are found in a number of foods, including:

  • Breads
  • Baked goods
  • Cereals
  • Soups
  • Pasta
  • Sauces
  • Salad dressings
  • Food coloring
  • Malt vinegar
  • Beer

Today, however, in response to market demand, there are a lot more gluten-free items available.

More People Affected by Celiac Disease Today Than 50 Years Ago

When trying to figure out why more people are buying gluten-free foods, we can start first with the fact that celiac disease seems to be on the rise.

One might think this could be explained with the increased awareness of the disease, and that certainly is part of it. Doctors can better diagnose celiac now, and are more likely to recognize its symptoms.

But that’s not all.

According to recent studies, the disease affects more people today than a few decades ago. In a 2009 study, for example, researchers examined data collected between 1948 and 1954 from 9,133 healthy young adults, and compared it with recent data gathered from 12,768 matched subjects.

Over 45 years of follow-up, they found that the prevalence of undiagnosed celiac disease seemed to have “increased dramatically in the United States during the past 50 years,” with the disease four times as common today as it was back then.

The Mayo Clinic published an article in July 2010 stating that the disease “is becoming a major public health issue. Although the cause is unknown, celiac disease is four times more common now than 60 years ago.”

We won’t go into the possible causes for the increase here, but suffice to say that this partially explains the increasing demand for gluten-free products.

Only partially, however.

The Demonizing of Gluten

For awhile, those with celiac disease were the only ones interested in gluten-free items. It’s not easy to eat a gluten-free diet, after all—you have to read labels like a mad person, watch for cross-contamination, and avoid a zillion different types of foods.

But then some leading health writers started blaming wheat for other problems. William Davis, a cardiologist, wrote a book entitled Wheat Belly in which he named wheat (and gluten) as unhealthy and a factor in arthritis, asthma, belly fat, skin problems, and more.

Then neurologist David Perlmutter wrote Grain Brain: the Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar—Your Brain’s Silent Killers, where he blamed gluten and carbs for dementia, ADHD, anxiety, chronic headaches, and depression.

These authors and other health experts gradually brought to light the theory that gluten can not only cause problems for those with celiac disease, but also for those with “gluten sensitivity,” and perhaps for the population as a whole.

To be gluten sensitive means to experience uncomfortable symptoms after eating something with gluten in it—and to feel better when avoiding these foods. Millions of people claim that they regularly experience distress after eating products with gluten in them, and that avoiding these products has made a key difference in their health and in their life.

Do doctors and scientists recognize gluten sensitivity as a real problem? Many do, but they remain uncertain that gluten, by itself, is the culprit. Many now feel that FODMAPs (Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and Polyols)—types of sugars found in some foods like wheat, garlic, onions, and apples—could be to blame, as they are poorly absorbed in the small intestine. When people go gluten-free, they often significantly reduce or eliminate these sugars from their diets as well, which could explain their improved symptoms.

There’s also some preliminary evidence that another type of protein in wheat could cause some intestinal inflammation, and many researchers believe the problem is not with gluten or FODMAPs themselves, but with the fact that our guts have lost their ability to tolerate them because of changes in the bacteria that live within us—the microbiome.

The bottom line is that we don’t have the science to fully explain it yet, so “gluten-sensitivity” remains something that people can only determine for themselves. What we may be doing that we shouldn’t, however, is jumping to the conclusion that gluten is the problem when it may not be.

Other Possible Causes of Digestive Distress

For people who experience uncomfortable symptoms after eating wheat and other grains with gluten, it makes sense to go through a trial period where you avoid those foods to see if your symptoms go away. It may also be helpful, though, to look at some other potential causes, like:

You can help yourself determine the cause of your digestive symptoms with tests for celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (find out more about those tests here). Realize that simply avoiding gluten can produce false results. One study of 900 participants, for example, found that 70 percent were mistaken about having a gluten intolerance.

In the end, if gluten-free works for you, it can be life-changing. But just because the diet is popular doesn’t mean it’s healthy for everyone. In fact, you may want to rethink the desire to go on a gluten-free diet for several reasons:

  • It can be very expensive. According to researchers from Dalhousie Medical School, gluten-free products were, on average, 242 percent pricier than gluten-containing versions of the same product.
  • It is time-consuming.
  • It can be inconvenient, especially when eating out.
  • It can result in nutrient deficiencies if you’re not careful—you may not get enough fiber, carbohydrates, and vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and folate.
  • You may get too much unhealthy fat and sugar, which are often used in high amounts in gluten-free foods.
  • You could actually decrease the amount of beneficial bacteria in the gut, negatively impacting your immune system.

What do you think about the gluten-free diet? Please share your thoughts.

* * *

Elizabeth Crawford, “Sales of gluten-free products continue to grow double digits on quality, selection,” Food Navigator, January 21, 2015,

“A Brief History of Celiac Disease,” Impact, September 2007; 7(3): 2-4,

James S. Fell, “Gluten-Free Craze is Boon and Bane for Those with Celiac Disease,” NPR, January 14, 2015,

Fasano A, et al., “Prevalence of celiac disease in at-risk and not-at-risk groups in the United States: a large multicenter study,” Arch Intern Med., February 10, 2003; 163(3):286-92,

Keith O’Brien, “Should We All Go Gluten-Free?” New York Times, November 25, 2011,

Alberto Rubio-Tapia, et al., “Increased Prevalence and Mortality in Undiagnosed Celiac Disease,” Gastroenterology, July 2009; 137(1):88-93,

“Celiac Disease: On the Rise,” Discovery’s Edge, Mayo Clinic’s Online Research Magazine, July 2010,

Michael Specter, “Against the Grain,” New Yorker, November 3, 2014,

Aimee Lee Ball, “Gut Instincts: the Fact and Fiction Behind the Gluten-Free Movement,” GFF Mag, January 20, 2015,

Martha C. White, “Why We’re Wasting Billions on Gluten-Free Food,” Time, March 13, 2013,

Carroccio A., et al., “Non-celiac wheat sensitivity diagnosed by double-blind placebo-controlled challenge: exploring a new clinical entity,” Am J Gastroenterol., December 2012; 107(12):1898-906,

Courtney C. Ferch, William D. Chey, “Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Gluten Sensitivity Without Celiac Disease: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff,” Gastroenterology, March 2012; 142(3):664-666,

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho.


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  1. Deane Alban says:

    I tell my readers the best way to determine whether wheat or gluten is a problem for you is to go without for 30 days and notice how you feel. Then add it back in and notice again. I wasn’t expecting to feel much different but when I added it back in — oh how my digestion suffered! Eating gluten-free doesn’t have to be expensive if you just stick with real food and avoid processed foods. Gluten-free bread was very expensive and frankly wasn’t all that good. I decided to just forget about trying to find gluten-free substitutes and stick with unprocessed foods. When my family cut out all breads, waffles, chips, crackers and energy bars our food bill went down substantially.

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