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5 Major Risks of Going Gluten-Free

With approximately 20% of Americans claiming that they actively seek out gluten-free products, this food fad has nutritionists and doctors worried. Find out why.

According to a recent poll, approximately one in five Americans say they actively try to incorporate gluten-free foods in their diet. It’s a trend that’s worrisome to nutritionists and doctors, many of whom cite a lack of scientific evidence to support the backlash against wheat.

A mere two million Americans have celiac disease, which is currently the only medically sanctioned reason to eliminate dietary gluten altogether. Meanwhile, reports of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a condition which causes symptoms such as bloating, gas, headaches, fatigue, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, appear to be on the rise.

But scientific evidence to support the existence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity is scant. No clear diagnostic tests exist, and symptoms are common to a number of other digestive disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome. Some researchers believe that gluten has been wrongly accused when other common ingredients in refined, wheat-based foods are actually to blame.

Of course, all that might not be a problem, if cutting out gluten didn’t present certain risks. Dr. Stefano Guandalini, the medical director at the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, explained in an interview with WebMD that, “Someone who needs to be on a gluten-free diet … can benefit tremendously. But for everyone else, embracing this diet makes no sense.”

Are you aware of the risks of eliminating wheat and gluten products from your diet? Read on to find out why going gluten-free comes at a cost to your health—and your wallet.

1. It’s easy replace whole grains with processed, gluten-free foods.

Scanning the shelves at your local supermarket, it’s difficult to miss the vast array of gluten-free products lining the shelves. Unfortunately, a number of these foods lack something besides gluten—namely, nutrients. Gluten-free foods, and especially those that are refined or processed, often consist of ingredients that have little to no nutritional value, such as potato, tapioca, and rice starch. These are not whole grains, and they don’t have the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of whole wheat, for instance.

Many naturally gluten-free foods, including French fries, candy, and certain brands of chips are anything but healthy. For many people who go gluten-free, it’s tempting to think you can lean on unhealthy or processed substitutes.

2. You may be missing out on dietary fiber, vitamins, and nutrients.

Getting enough fiber, which helps to maintain the health of your gut, is challenging on a gluten-free diet. Whole grains, including whole wheat cereal, pasta, and bread are one of the most significant sources of dietary fiber along with fruits and vegetables. But gluten-free replacements tend to lack fiber, which means that going gluten-free can lead to constipation.

In addition, avoiding wheat means avoiding nutrient-enriched wheat products, which can ultimately lead to deficiencies in vitamins and minerals such as calcium, niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, and folate.

3. You may have celiac disease and not know it.

Experts suggest that as many as 1% of Americans may have celiac disease, which is severely underdiagnosed. Caused by an abnormal autoimmune response to gluten, celiac disease can damage the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, causing symptoms such as diarrhea, anemia, skin rashes, and bone pain. If left untreated, celiac disease can lead to intestinal cancer.

But celiac disease may be present in people who don’t show any symptoms. Self-diagnosing a gluten sensitivity and cutting out gluten can be dangerous because you don’t know if you’re celiac or not. The only way to know is to see a gastroenterologist and take a blood test—but, you need to have eaten gluten for a period of months leading up to the test. Many people who cut out gluten without seeking medical advice find they don’t want to start eating gluten again in order to get tested.

4. Gluten-free foods may cause you to gain weight, not lose it.

It’s a mistake to think that going gluten-free can help you to shed excess pounds. In fact, some people experience the opposite, gaining weight when they cut out wheat. When you eat whole grains, the complete structure of the grain, including the bran, the germ, and the endosperm, is what causes you to feel full.

Whole grains take longer to digest, which means that sugars are released into your blood gradually, as opposed to causing your blood sugar to spike. Since gluten-free foods—which can contain extra carbs and calories to mimic the texture and taste of gluten-containing foods—are often lacking in whole grains, they can leave you feeling hungry right after you’ve eaten, while excess carbs are then stored as fat.

5. You’ll overpay for gluten-free foods.

In 2014, gluten-free foods represented a $9 billion dollar industry. On average, you’ll pay more for products labeled gluten-free compared to their gluten-containing counterparts. A study from researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, found that gluten-free products were 242% more expensive than similar products which contained gluten. In some cases, the products were up to 455% more expensive. In other words, manufacturers are cashing in. Given the costs, going gluten-free may end up presenting the greatest risk to your wallet.

[Image via Getty]

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