Here's Everything You're Getting Wrong About Gluten

If you haven't yet heard the word “gluten,” you've probably been living under a rock. Celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Miley Cyrus have embraced the gluten-free “lifestyle” — or at least have dabbled in it — and there’s no shortage of wellness bloggers and influencers who tout the purported benefits of skipping this complex protein found in wheat. The result: Most of the people cutting gluten out of their lives aren’t doing so because of celiac disease, according to a recent paper published in the journal Pediatrics. Instead, they’re doing it because of the many circulating myths out there.

A gluten-free diet is literally a life-saver for people with celiac disease, which is a genetic autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine, triggering symptoms such as cramping, bloating, and diarrhea. In fact, going gluten-free is the only available treatment for people who have this condition.

But too many people wrongfully believe that a gluten-free diet will help boost energy, lead to fast weight loss, solve headaches or inflammation, or help with auto-immune diseases in general, explains Peter H.R. Green, MD, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. “There just isn’t any scientific basis to these claims.”

Still, it isn’t quite that simple, Dr. Green admits, as we are learning more about the existence of what’s known as gluten sensitivity.

Ahead, we debunk the major misconceptions surrounding this much-maligned protein and share the latest on who can and cannot eat gluten.

Illustrated by Aimee Sy
Fact: Gluten isn't evil.
Some one in three people are reportedly dodging gluten in their diets, according to data from the NPD Group. But unlike say, sugar, which is unhealthy for everybody when consumed in large amounts, foods that contain gluten are not harmful at all unless you have celiac disease, a wheat allergy, or gluten sensitivity. “There’s no evidence that a gluten-free diet is beneficial for people without celiac disease, and a small portion of people with other issues,” Dr. Green says.

In fact, whole grains that contain gluten — including those made with whole wheat (like 100% whole-wheat bread and pasta) and barley — can be very nutritious, offering fiber as well as other important vitamins and minerals. The benefits of whole grains are well-known: They have been linked to lower cholesterol and blood-pressure levels, and most recently, a decreased risk of premature death from heart disease and cancer. While there are plenty of ways to get a dose of whole grains from gluten-free foods (such as corn, millet, or rice), there’s no reason to demonize whole wheat on account of the gluten alone.
Illustrated by Aimee Sy
Fact: Except for a few of us, gluten is no biggie for our bodies.
The idea that our cave-dwelling ancestors didn’t eat wheat, so we didn’t evolve to be able to digest it, is a large part of why so many people say gluten is dangerous or bad for the body.

It’s actually true that we don’t produce the enzymes necessary to break down the complex proteins in gluten. So every time you eat wheat bread or pasta, your immune system kicks into gear. But unless you are among the 1% of people with celiac, this is just your immune system doing a cleanup in aisle seven, as it’s been doing for 10,000 years. “It doesn’t cause an issue for most people,” Green says. “For people with celiac, it does.”

That’s because in celiac disease, the immune system’s action doesn’t stop at gluten. It continues to attack the lining of the intestine, which is why it causes GI symptoms and can eventually lead to nutritional deficiencies as the lining becomes damaged.
Illustrated by Aimee Sy
Fact: There are other reasons to skip gluten.

Now, here’s where it gets tricky. Some people who don’t have celiac truly do have a reaction to gluten.

“I definitely recognize that there are some people with gluten sensitivity,” Dr. Green says, “but it’s much more vague.” Although there’s no definitive set of symptoms or test to diagnose gluten sensitivity yet, people who believe they have it report getting stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, depression, and some dozen other symptoms in response to eating gluten. After comparing biopsies from people with celiac, people with self-identified gluten sensitivity, and healthy controls, researchers reporting in a 2011 issue of the journal BMC Medicine confirmed that gluten sensitivity is real, and that it causes a type of immune reaction that’s distinct from celiac disease.
Illustrated by Aimee Sy
Fact: It could be something else.
Not so fast. Although some “experts” love to pin all instances of IBS-like symptoms on gluten issues, it’s far less common than people think, Dr. Green says.

That’s not to say your symptoms aren’t real, just that there might actually be something else going on. In a 2013 study in the journal Gastroenterology, researchers found that many more people reacted to fermentable, poorly absorbed short-chain carbohydrates (called FODMAPs), found in breads, beer, pastries, and pasta, than to gluten.

The way to figure out what’s really causing your symptoms is to work with your doctor or see a gastroenterologist who can run blood tests and help you sleuth out the true source of the problem.
Illustrated by Aimee Sy
Fact: A gluten-free diet, like any other diet, can be unhealthy.
The truth is that simply cutting out gluten doesn’t mean you don’t need to focus on other aspects of a healthy diet, like eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Food manufacturers have been quick to respond to the trend by slapping the “gluten-free” label onto everything they possibly can, and this has had the effect of creating a “health halo” (a.k.a. the perception that a food is healthier than it is).

For example, cakes, cookies, and other processed foods can fit into any diet, but they’ll never be a health food, gluten or not. Erasing gluten doesn’t erase sugar, too much of which has been linked to Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. And manufacturers often stuff gluten-free substitutes with extra salt, sugar, fat, and corn or potato starch to compensate for lost flavor and texture. An Australian study compared the nutritional value of some 3,200 foods and their gluten-free counterparts and found the differences to be negligible. So, a gluten-free doughnut? Still a doughnut.
Illustrated by Aimee Sy
Fact: If your body hates gluten, its effects could go beyond your GI system.
Studies show that people with celiac have serious brain fog — confusion, disorientation, difficulty concentrating and finding words, problems with attentiveness, lapses in short-term memory, or temporary loss of creativity, according to a 2014 study from Monash University in Australia. “When you test people with celiac disease, they respond like people who are drunk or have severe jet lag,” Dr. Green says. Fortunately, a strict gluten-free diet leads to clearer thinking — but it won’t help you if you don’t have celiac.
Illustrated by Aimee Sy
Fact: Gluten is found in way more things than you think.
Actually, gluten is pretty sneaky, hiding out in many processed foods you might not expect, like pickles, bleu cheese, spray cheese, soy sauce, salad dressings, gravies, bullion cubes, seasoning packets, hot dogs, beer, licorice and more. Check the label for the phrase “gluten-free” — even on naturally gluten-free foods like oats, which have to be specially processed to avoid cross-contamination. There’s also a risk of cross-contamination at restaurants, if say your French Fries get dropped into the same vat of boiling oil as the breaded onion rings, which have gluten. Tell your waiter what’s up and don’t be shy about asking how things are cooked and prepared.
Illustrated by Aimee Sy
Fact: Celiac is a serious disease, and going gluten-free is the only treatment.

One of the unintended consequences of the gluten-free craze is that in some ways, it makes it harder for people who truly can’t have gluten to be taken seriously. In fact, according to data from market research firm Mintel, 47% of consumers say gluten-free is just a “fad.”

While that may be true for some (okay, many), it’s so much more than that for those with celiac. “Celiac is a serious condition that shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Green says. “It can increase the risk of osteoporosis, fractures, anemia and increased mortality.” And though it may be annoying to eat with someone who’s obsessively checking labels and grilling waiters, being sloppy about gluten if you have celiac could lead to malnutrition, liver disease and even intestinal cancers. If you have celiac, even the bittiest crumb can set off symptoms.
Illustrated by Aimee Sy
Fact: You also have to watch out for certain personal care products.

Taking gluten permanently off your menu is a must if your body can’t tolerate it — that’s actually the only way to treat the disorder. But you might also have to clean out your vanity.

“It’s important to get rid of any gluten that can accidentally be ingested — from things like toothpaste, mouthwash and lipstick,” Green says. While there’s no scientific evidence that the relatively large gluten proteins can be absorbed through the skin, some people claim that using makeup with gluten can trigger symptoms such as acne, rosacea and sundry crusties, like around your eyelids from eye shadows. Since 2012, there’s been a 43% uptick in gluten-free personal care products, according to Supermarket News. If you’re worried, look into one of the beauty lines that are entirely gluten-free, including Éclair Naturals, Afterglow Cosmetics, Ecco Bella, Juice Beauty, Bite Beauty and Red Apple Lipstick.