The popularity of following a gluten-free diet has increased significantly in the past few decades.1 Most restaurants and grocery stores now offer a variety of gluten-free options, and the popularity of other diets like paleo and keto, which limit gluten intake, are also gaining momentum. Why has gluten free become so prevalent when only about 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, a condition that is directly triggered by gluten consumption?2 There may be other more widespread ailments that could be potentially improved through adherence to a gluten-free diet.1
Treatment of IBS and NCGS
One of the main benefits of a gluten-free diet is its role in improving gastrointestinal health. Individuals with conditions such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) can experience pain, bloating and inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract after consuming gluten or other kinds of sugars found in foods knowns as “FODMAPs.”3 Gluten is a protein found in several types of grains and can only be partially digested by the body. While those suffering from IBS or NCGS do not experience the decreased ability to reabsorb nutrients like those with celiac disease, they still can experience extreme discomfort in their abdominal region after consuming foods containing gluten.4 Following a gluten-free diet and decrease this discomfort and improve digestive health.
Chronic Pain Management
Diseases that cause chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia, can often be associated with symptoms similar to those of individuals with gluten sensitivities.5 There is a possibility that an undiagnosed gluten sensitivity may actually be the cause of fibromyalgia in some cases. For some, following a gluten-free diet can reduce pain and improve quality of life to a significant degree.6 Other types of chronic pain, like rheumatoid arthritis and general joint pain, may also be eased by following a gluten-free diet for those who have underlying gluten sensitivities as well.7
According to a 2017 study, women who followed a gluten-free diet tended to have a lower BMI (body mass index) on average than the general population. The group following a gluten-free diet also seemed more concerned with their weight in general.8 As of now, there is not extensive research on a gluten-free diets resulting in significant weight loss; however, following a gluten-free diet may cause an individual to pay attention to what they eat and make better choices in general.9
It is important to be conscientious when going on a gluten-free diet, especially when it is voluntary, in order to make sure you are getting all of the necessary nutrients. Iron and folate deficiencies are common in a gluten-free diet as they are often found in grains. It is important to make sure your diet contains these nutrients from other sources.9
1 Niland, B., Cash, B. D., Health Benefits and Adverse Effects of a Gluten-Free Diet in Non-Celiac Disease Patients. Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 2018. 14(2): 82-91.
2 Jones, A. L., The Gluten-Free Diet: Fad or Necessity. Diabetes Spectrum, 2017. 30(2): 118-123.
3 Makharia, A., Catassi, C., Makharia, G. K., The Overlap between Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity: A Clinical Dilemma. Nutrients, 2015. 7(12): 10417-10426.
4 El-Salhy, M., Hatlebakk, J. G., Gilja, O. H., Hausken, T., The relation between celiac disease, nonceliac gluten sensitivity and irritable bowel syndrome. Nutrition Journal, 2015. 14: 92.
5 Aman, M. M., Jason, Y. R., Kaye, A. D., Urman, R. D., Evidence-Based Non-Pharmacological Therapies for Fibromyalgia. Current Pain and Headache Reports, 2018. 22(5): 33.
6 Isasi, C., Colmenero, I., Casco, F., Tejerina, E., Fernandez, N., Serrano-Vela, J. I., Castro, M., Villa, L. F., Fibromyalgia and non-celiac gluten sensitivity: a description with remission of fibromyalgia. Rheumatology International, 2014. 34(11): 1607-1612.
7 “The Facts About Gluten and RA Diets.” Hospital for Special Surgery. May 2014.
8 Kim, H. S., Demyen, M. F., Mathew, J., Kothari, N., Feurdean, M. Ahlawat, S. K., Obesity, Metabolic Syndrome, and Cardiovascular Risk in Gluten-Free Followers Without Celiac Disease in the United States: Results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009-2014. Digestive Diseases and Sciences, 2017. 62(9): 2440-2448.
9 Marcason, W., Is There Evidence to Support the Claim that a Gluten-Free Diet Should Be Used for Weight Loss. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Diabetics, 2011. 111(11): 1786.
10 Welstead, L., The Gluten-Free Diet in the 3rd Millennium: Rules, Risks and Opportunities. Diseases, 2015. 3(3): 136-149.
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction, with a special focus on nutrition during early life and pregnancy. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She is an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York, NY and is a visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Dr. Avena has written several books, including What to Eat When You’re Pregnant and What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler. She regularly appears as a science expert on the Dr. Oz Show, Good Day NY and The Doctors, as well as many other news programs. Her work has been featured in Bloomberg Business Week, Time Magazine for Kids, The New York Times, Shape, Men’s Health, Details, as well as many other periodicals. Dr. Avena blogs for Psychology Today, is a member of the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau and has the No. 2 most watched TED-ED Health talk, “How Sugar Affects Your Brain.”
You can follow Dr. Avena on Twitter (@DrNicoleAvena), Facebook (www.facebook.com/DrNicoleAvena) and Instagram (@drnicoleavena), or visit www.drnicoleavena.com.