Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye products such as flour, bread, cereals, and pasta. Only people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) need to avoid gluten. Celiac disease is a disorder in which foods with gluten cause the immune system to attack the small intestine, affecting digestion. Symptoms include bloating, gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, lactose intolerance, and anemia. People with NCGS may have similar symptoms plus non-intestinal ones such as joint pain, skin rashes, and leg numbness, but without the same intestinal damage. The only way to treat both conditions is a strict gluten-free diet.
There is no evidence to suggest that people without celiac disease or NCGS benefit from a gluten-free diet. People on gluten-free diets may feel healthier because they are more health conscious overall. However, gluten-free products aren’t always healthier alternatives, and some contain extra fat and sugar to make up for the lack of gluten. In addition, many gluten-free foods aren’t fortified or enriched, so people on a gluten-free diet risk missing out on essential nutrients, in particular B vitamins and iron. If you do choose to go gluten-free, discuss it with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian so you don’t miss getting any essential vitamins and minerals.
Bottom line: Unless you have celiac disease, whole grains with gluten can be a nutritious part of your eating plan. Check out HPRC’s grains table for the nutrient breakdown of various grains, with and without gluten.