Once upon a time, “gluten-free” foods could only be found in select health-food stores — but times have changed. Gluten-free foods are now everywhere — in ordinary supermarkets, convenience stores, and restaurants. For people with Celiac disease (CD), an uncomfortable condition where an individual’s body can’t digest the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, this abundance is a God-send. It’s become much easier to live with this condition.
But in recent times, gluten-free eating has become a fad of enormous proportions. While a study found that an estimated 1.76 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with CD, the same report showed that more than 2.7 million people were adhering to a gluten-free diet despite not having CD.
So if these people don’t have CD, why are they choosing a gluten-free diet? Are there other benefits to it? Can it help your body composition goals?
What is gluten?
Before diving in further, take a refresher and learn more about gluten. What is it? Where does it show up?
The short answer is that gluten is the general name for a group of proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley, as well as man-made triticale. This protein acts as a “glue” that helps hold these foods together.
Gluten seemingly shows up everywhere — from bread and baked goods to beer and cereals, and even food coloring, malt, sauces, and salad dressings. Oats (think oatmeal) are technically naturally gluten-free, but they’re often grown and/or processed in areas alongside wheat, barley, and rye. This can lead to cross-contamination, so oats need to be specifically labeled gluten-free to be treated as such.
Who does gluten effect?
Gluten causes digestive issues for people who have celiac disease or autoimmune thyroid disease. Individuals with these conditions who consume gluten-containing foods face a barrage of uncomfortable or even painful effects. These symptoms can vary widely and based on the presentation are given different classification.
Classical Celiac Disease
In classical CD you present with the symptoms many have heard of and expect: diarrhea, discolored stools, constipation, abdominal bloating and pain, and weight loss. However, these symptoms are more commonly found in children with CD than adults. In adults, symptoms tend to have more similarities to those seen in non-classical CD.
Non-Classical Celiac Disease
In non-classical CD, individuals may not have as severe digestive symptoms as in classical presentation but suffer from other signs. Some of these include abdominal distention or pain, and things like iron-deficiency anemia, fatigue, or migraines, weaker bones, depression, and more.
Silent Celiac Disease
Silent CD is even less visible. Individuals might not complain of any symptoms at all, but damage to their intestines is still occurring from gluten consumption.
Autoimmune Thyroid Disease
Alongside individuals suffering from Celiac Disease, another subset of the population have Autoimmune Thyroid Disease (ATD). ATD includes conditions like Hashimoto’s disease, which affects your thyroid gland and causes extreme fatigue, sensitivity to cold, hair loss, body and joint aches, and many more uncomfortable and negative health effects.
Studies have shown that going gluten-free helps alleviate symptoms for individuals who have ATD.
People with Celiac Disease + Autoimmune Thyroid Disease face long-term problems
The solution, of course, is to follow a strict gluten-free diet. If an individual with CD chooses not to, complications can arise. Conditions, like ATD, have been shown to be more common in patients with CD, and even multiple sclerosis has been connected to CD. Furthermore, inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and even psoriasis have also been linked to CD.
Clearly, if gluten is not removed from these individuals’ diets, there’s the very real potential for serious complications.
But wait, you may be saying — what about gluten sensitivity? This may sound familiar: someone is experiencing symptoms similar to CD, but isn’t diagnosed. And yet, when they remove gluten from their diet, their symptoms relent and they feel better.
If they don’t have CD but removing gluten made them feel better, there must be something there, right?
A 2013 study looked at patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS, and investigated the effects of removing a certain type of carbohydrates called Fermentable, Poorly Absorbed, Short-chain Carbohydrates (FODMAPs). Specifically, the researchers watched the effects of gluten.
Participants were placed on either a high-gluten (16 grams of gluten per day), low-gluten (2 grams of gluten per day), or control (16 grams of whey protein per day) diet. After 2 weeks, the participants of each group were switched to one of the other gluten diets for 3 days to observe the different effects on each individual.
In all the study’s participants, digestive symptoms improved when the gluten-containing FODMAPs were removed and worsened when gluten or whey protein was included. However, while these changes were significant in relation to FODMAPs, gluten-specific effects were observed in just 8% of participants. No biomarkers — measurable substances that, if present, indicate a condition — changed in any group related to diet.
The results of this study support the idea that gluten may not be the issue in individuals with NCGS; rather, fermentable, poorly absorbed, short-chain carbohydrates appear to be causing gastrointestinal symptoms in these individuals. Saying that non-Celiac GI issues stem from “gluten sensitivity” may, in fact, be a misnomer — and one that should be replaced by non-Celiac wheat intolerance.
So… is gluten bad?
So if consuming foods with gluten can cause uncomfortable symptoms that may also increase the risk of other conditions in some individuals, does that mean it’s bad for everyone? No.
Saying that gluten is evil and sabotages your health is a potentially dangerous statement: less than 1% of the population has Celiac disease. And as you just learned, gluten sensitivity may not be caused by gluten at all, but rather by FODMAPs.
So for people with CD or autoimmune thyroid disease, yes, gluten is bad. But for everyone else, it’s more shades of grey than it is black-and-white.
Gluten-free, low nutritional value?
In healthy, non-Celiac adults may be a detriment to their overall health by going gluten-free. And if your health declines, reaching your body composition goals can be more difficult.
A 2016 study supported this by showing that gluten-free diets can be poor in many important nutrients, like fiber, iron, zinc, thiamine, B12, and more. In addition to deficient amounts of these, gluten-free diets often have a higher saturated and hydrogenated fatty acid content, as well as containing foods with higher glycemic indexes and loads.
Alongside the points noted earlier, there is little evidence that a gluten-free diet provides nutritional benefit, and may, in fact, have negative consequences on body composition. Why? Whole grains — many of which contain gluten — are excellent sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Gluten-free alternatives are often man-made and low in such nutrients, while also being high in calories, which may lead to weight gain.
The last two are important considerations, as they measure the effect that what you eat has on your blood sugar. Overall, nutritional quality tends to diminish in favor of avoiding gluten.
If you’re concerned that you may have Celiac disease, consult with your doctor before starting a gluten-free regimen. You need to still be eating gluten for the biomarkers to be detectable on the current tests. But if you don’t think you have Celiac disease — or have received negative test results — there are some things you need to keep in mind.
Gluten-Free Diets and Body Composition
A study found that a gluten-free diet may have a positive effect on body composition. Researchers found that participants who ate gluten-free for the full 1-year length of the study showed higher amounts of fat-free Lean Body Mass, including Muscle Mass. Participants also showed lower amounts of Fat Mass than at the start.
However, there are some limitations to this study: the study was performed only in children. To determine the potential effects of a gluten-free diet on an adult’s body composition, you need to turn elsewhere. Luckily, there have been a few studies performed on adults.
A 2015 study compared 39 adult CD patients with 39 healthy, non-CD volunteers to determine the effect of a gluten-free diet on the nutritional status of CD patients. At the beginning of the study, about 80% of the CD patients had normal or overweight BMI, with 10.3% being malnourished. After going on the gluten-free diet, the CD patients gained a significant amount of weight without going into the overweight or obese BMI category; 50% of the malnourished CD patients gained enough weight to enter the range of a normal BMI for their size.
This suggests that a gluten-free diet can help you gain healthy weight. But don’t jump on the train just yet — another study contradicts these findings.
39 adults diagnosed with CD were tracked for 1 year. Body composition, resting metabolic rate, and substrate oxidation rates were measured at the beginning — prior to starting a gluten-free diet — and following completion of the yearlong program.
Measurements after a year on a gluten-free diet showed an increase in body weight and body fat mass in the gluten-free CD subjects. Age and height-matched control subjects had no such negative gains — or in other words, body fat percentage increased in the CD patients eating gluten-free, but not in the control group.
And one final point to be made: each of these studies was performed on individuals diagnosed with Celiac disease. There have been very few studies undergone on the effects of a gluten-free diet on people without CD.
If you’re going to go gluten-free, do it right
But, if despite these arguments, you still want to try out going gluten-free, make sure you follow some simple guidelines:
- Just because you’re eliminating gluten-containing foods does not mean you should eliminate all grains. You still can –and should — eat a variety of grains, including quinoa, millet, rice, sorghum, soy, and corn. You can also use gluten-free rice, soy, corn, potato, and bean flours. Oats can be eaten as long as they’re labeled gluten-free — this ensures they haven’t been cross-contaminated.
- Your diet should be made up primarily of fruits and vegetables, unprocessed beans, seeds, and nuts, eggs, and lean meat, and low-fat dairy products alongside the grains just mentioned.
- Avoid processed food that contains Durum, Einkorn, Emmer, Kamut, and Spelt. Each of those is a wheat gluten and its presence means the food is not gluten-free.
- Although you’re now removing gluten-containing foods, the same rules of improving your body composition still apply. Engage in some form of strength training, cardio, and flexibility regularly and track your calories and their macronutrient makeup. You may not lose weight initially on a gluten-free diet — especially if you’re just starting out — but if you’re taking care to eat healthy foods in the right quantities of macronutrients and calories, you should be seeing the difference in the mirror.
Is gluten bad for you? Will going gluten-free improve your body composition?
To sum up their answers: for most of the population, gluten is not harmful to you. A certain portion of us have a true condition that prevents them from being able to eat gluten-containing foods, and there may be a small portion with a non-gluten-related sensitivity to certain foods that happen to commonly contain gluten.
And for some people, eliminating gluten can help them eat healthier foods, improving their health, losing weight and body fat, and reaching their body composition goals. But studies have also shown that many gluten-free diets are low in essential nutrients and high in processed food choices, which can increase health risk and make it difficult to improve your body composition.
So ultimately, for most people, gluten isn’t the issue, nor the item they should be devoting their energy to. When it comes to improving your health and body composition, food choice, quantity, and division of macronutrients are more important, as is consistent exercise.
If you want to try out a gluten-free diet, as long you follow the guidelines outlined there should be no harm in it, but most of your focus should go toward food quality and macronutrient quantity opposed to just looking for any gluten-free option. Maximizing nutrient-dense foods and consistent exercise are what matter most — that’s where you’ll reap the rewards of a leaner, stronger, healthier body — gluten-free or not.
Matthew Seiltz is a writer and lifelong strength and fitness enthusiast. When not writing or working out, he can be found with a book or spending time with his wife and sons outdoors.