The concept of a gluten-free diet has been around for several years. It is a common belief that it is largely beneficial towards individuals with coeliac disease, and by that extension, gluten intolerance.

Nevertheless, these claims have always been largely ignored. Gluten-free diets, while non-beneficial, were also thought to bring about no harm. However, a new large-scale study in the UK discovered otherwise.

Essential for those with coeliac disease

Coeliac disease, triggered by dietary gluten peptides found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley, is a common condition that affects up to 1% of the general population. The disease may be present at any age, presenting symptoms which include diarrhoea, poor growth, anaemia and weak bones, just to name a few.

Fortunately, there are established diagnostics methods to diagnose the systemic autoimmune disease, which consist of a blood test for immunoglobulin A and a gut biopsy.

At present, the most effective treatment for coeliac disease is a strict, lifelong gluten-free diet. Failure to adhere to such a diet, however, may result in complications such as digestion problems, increased risk of cancer and a higher overall rate of mortality.

Fortunately, the outlook for coeliac disease is good, with up to 90% of patients having a complete and lasting resolution of symptoms by adhering to a gluten-free diet alone.

Gluten-free diet has become popular as a health fad

Proponents for a gluten-free diet have often claimed a variety of health benefits and touted its all natural regime. Moreover, gluten intake is believed to increase the risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome and heart problems owing to its nature as an inflammatory-promoting agent even in adults without coeliac disease.

It is upon this basis that a gluten-free diet has risen in popularity amongst healthy adults without coeliac disease.

On the other hand, various studies and medical experts have disproved the validity of gluten-free diets in individuals without coeliac disease citing no positive benefits. As such, a study in the UK set about to determine the health effects of gluten-free diets in normal adults.

Avoiding gluten increased risk of heart disease

The study encompassed 26 years of follow-up with 64,714 women and 45,303 men, making it one of the largest-scale studies on gluten free diet by far. By using a food frequency questionnaire, Benjamin Lebwohl and a team of researchers were able to get an estimate of each participant’s gluten consumption.

The questionnaire data was then cross-referenced against the development of heart disease to find a link between gluten consumption and heart problems. Unsurprisingly, the results of the study published this year revealed no notable health benefits of gluten-free diets in normal adults regardless of gender.

Rather, it was found that the avoidance of gluten actually results in reduced consumption of beneficial whole grains which then increase the risk of heart problems. Specifically, participants who had a normal intake of gluten were not at a higher risk of developing heart problems.

Meanwhile, those who did consume a higher intake of whole grains were found to be associated with a lower risk of heart problems.

With these new findings, it is certain that a gluten free diet should not be encouraged unless the individual is suffering from coeliac disease. Instead, an all-encompassing well-balanced diet should be recommended. MIMS

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