Although gluten-related diseases such as celiac disease affect less than 1 percent of the population, there has been a large rise in the popularity of grain-free diets in the past couple of decades.1 There are a lot of different reasons why someone may choose to go on a grain-free diet, but is it worth the hype? To answer this question, let’s look at some of the benefits of going grain-free (without medically needing to).
It may increase your consumption of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables.
Unless you’re subbing all of your grains with their gluten-free counterparts, you may find yourself eating more fruits and veggies to fill up your plate at mealtimes. Starchy vegetables are a great alternative to grains as they help add bulk to your plate the same way grains might, and they also contain a wide variety of nutrients. If you’re not on a grain-free diet at the moment, it may even be a good idea to swap some grains (especially white, refined grains) once in a while for starchy vegetables with your meals. For example, instead of white rice, try sweet potato with chickpeas or lentils and carrots.
It may improve your symptoms if you have IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), fibromyalgia, endometriosis, chronic pelvic pain or other autoimmune diseases.1,3,4
Although a grain-free diet isn’t a typical treatment protocol for any of these conditions, some research shows that sticking to a gluten-free diet may improve some of your symptoms, and not just the gastrointestinal ones. If you have any of these conditions, you may want to consider consulting with your doctor about a grain-free diet.
It may help you lose weight.2
There is still a lot of research to be done in this area, but results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination (NHANES) survey from 2009-2014 show that a grain-free diet may be beneficial for weight loss or weight maintenance. Those participants in the study who followed a gluten-free diet lost more weight than others over the course of a year. Interestingly, the study also reported that those who were on the gluten-free diet were more likely to consider their weight “appropriate.”
It may improve markers of metabolic syndrome.5
Metabolic syndrome is a condition characterized by high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, hyperglycemia, insulin resistance and excess fat around the waist (waist circumference). Although some studies show no difference between a grain-free diet and a control diet on markers of metabolic syndrome, we have seen an effect in others. One study in 2018 found that after an 8-week intervention, participants on a gluten-free diet had a significantly reduced fasting blood glucose, waist circumference, and triglyceride concentration than the control group.
There are possibly many other potential benefits to a grain-free diet, but more research is needed to uncover any connections. One avenue scientists are exploring is the possibility of a grain-free diet to improve symptoms of autism or other spectrum disorders.
If you decide to give a grain-free diet a shot, make sure to include plenty of fruits and vegetables (instead of simply replacing your grains with processed, gluten-free alternatives). In order to reap the benefits, it’s important to maintain a healthy, well-rounded diet with fresh foods.
1 Health Benefits and Adverse Effects of a Gluten-Free Diet in Non–Celiac Disease Patients. February 2018. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5866307/.
2 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. April 2017. www.researchgate.net/publication/316526045_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.
3 Gluten-Free Diet: Imprudent Dietary Advice for the General Population? September 2012. https://jandonline.org/article/S2212-26721200743-5/fulltext.
4 Long-term response to gluten-free diet as evidence for non-celiac wheat sensitivity in one-third of patients with diarrhea-dominant and mixed-type irritable bowel syndrome. September 2016. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00384-016-2663-x.
5 The Effect of Gluten Free Diet on Components of Metabolic Syndrome: A Randomized Clinical Trial www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6291063/.
Nicole Avena, PhD, is assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Visiting Professor of Health Psychology at Princeton University. She is the author of several books, including Why Diets Fail, and What to Eat When You’re Pregnant.