Health & Wellness

Is a gluten-free diet for you? The hidden downsides of the food craze

It’s super trendy to go gluten-free these days, with grocery stores, restaurants and cookbooks touting gluten-free options. Celebrities from Gwyneth Paltrow to Russell Crowe are fans of the eating regimen, noting it helps them feel better and improves overall health.

But a new article in Consumer Reports found that a gluten-free diet may not be more nutritious, could cause you to gain weight and make you spend more money.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. More than 3 million Americans — about 1 percent of the U.S. population — can’t tolerate it because of an autoimmune disorder called celiac disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. For them, it's medically necessary to avoid gluten.

Others should proceed with caution, Consumer Reports advises.

“If you're not careful to replace whole grains, other whole grains for those wheat products, then you could be missing out on a lot of nutrients and fiber,” said Trisha Calvo, deputy content editor at Consumer Reports.

There are also concerns that people are turning to a gluten-free diet for the wrong reasons — incorrectly self-diagnosing digestive symptoms that may not be related to gluten. The increasingly common label of non-celiac gluten sensitivity raises questions about misdiagnosis.

“There are many other conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, for example, that might be playing a role here and you're not seeking the right medical attention because you're just kind of trying to figure it out on your own,” said Dr. Roshini Raj, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Read more: Are you on a gluten-free diet? What if gluten isn't the problem? 

Many people think a gluten-free diet will help them shed pounds, but Consumer Reports cites a study that found many gluten-free foods caused people to gain weight.

“The calories, fat, sugar and sodium don't disappear with the gluten — a cookie is still a cookie,” Calvo said.

Then, there’s the impact on your wallet: Gluten-free foods generally cost more than conventional products.

“When we were looking at all of these gluten-free products, we found that in almost every case, the gluten-free version was more expensive than the regular version and sometimes the cost was double or more,” Calvo noted.

Read more: Arsenic in gluten-free food: How worried should you be?

Still, Americans are willing to spend. The gluten-free industry, which now includes pet food, beauty products and household cleaners, is worth almost $9 billion.

Bottom line: Avoiding gluten might be a good idea for some, but it’s best to talk to a nutritionist if you want to make that change, Raj advised.

“If you do decide to go gluten-free, it's best to go for naturally gluten-free products. Things like fruits and vegetables, for example, as opposed to processed gluten-free products that may have more sugar, calories and fat in them,” Raj said.

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