Gluten-free is not all it's cracked up to be. That's the conclusion of a new study from the Harvard Medical School that looked at the habits and health of 110,000 people over a 24-year period. The research finds that eating a gluten-free diet may actually increase the risk of heart disease. Specifically, those who ate the least gluten over the course of the study were 15 percent more likely to get coronary heart disease than those who ate the most gluten.
Researchers believe the correlation between lower gluten intake and worse heart health stems from the lack of whole grains in a gluten-free diet. Dr. John Higgins, sports cardiologist with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, agrees with those findings. "We believe that part of the reason (for the results) is that those whole grains are very healthy in many individuals," he says. "They not only are good for lowering cholesterol, but they have high fiber, they will fill you up more and lower your chance of gaining weight, and therefore reduce obesity and type 2 diabetes."
While the gluten-free diet continues to soar in popularity, many who are on it are failing to get the nutrients in whole grain products that contain gluten. "We definitely want people to be taking those whole grains, and it can be difficult if you are on a gluten-free diet to get enough of the right type of those whole grains," says Dr. Higgins. Another option is to replace gluten products with non-gluten sources of whole grains, like oats or unrefined rice.
Avoiding gluten is a necessity only for the small amount of the population that has celiac disease, a condition in which the body has difficulty processing or digesting gluten. But for everyone else, both the Harvard researchers and Dr. Higgins agree there's no reason to go gluten-free. "If you don't have celiac disease or you don't require being on a gluten-free diet, we actually would not recommend that," says Dr. Higgins.