You'd have to be living in a cave (in which case, you're probably on the Paleo diet - another topic for another time) not to notice all the gluten free foods, books and magazine articles claiming that following a gluten free diet will improve your health, cure your disease, reduce your weight, etc. etc. I'm sure this leads many, MANY people to wonder if they should, in fact follow a gluten free diet.
The short answer is...Probably Not. Definitely not to the extent that the food and diet industries are currently making you think you should anyway. However, there are some cases in which a gluten free diet should be mandatory, or at least beneficial. The question is, do you fit into one of those groups? I will highlight the (few) cases in which going gluten free may help you, and the possible drawbacks of following the diet if you don't need it. Here we go.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which the consumption of gluten actually damages the tissue in your small intestine. Symptoms vary greatly from gastrointestinal discomfort to anemia to unexplained weight loss and many others, making the disease hard to identify. The incidence of Celiac disease has been increasing over the years (possibly due to increased awareness and testing), but is still pretty rare (around 1% of the population). Many people who have Celiac disease don't know it. The only treatment for Celiac disease is the strict adherence to a gluten free diet for life. Failing to do so could lead to permanent damage to the small intestine. Celiac disease can be screened for with a blood antibody test, but a true diagnosis comes only from an endoscopic small bowel biopsy, in which a small piece of tissue is removed and inspected for damage. However, the damage can only be identified prior to starting a gluten free diet.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
Symptoms are similar to Celiac disease, but occur without the small bowel damage. Diagnosis is usually made by testing for and ruling out Celiac disease and other GI related conditions and the trial of a gluten free diet to see if symptoms improve. Treatment includes following a gluten free diet to relieve symptoms.
There are claims that following a gluten free diet will reduce joint pain associated with arthritis. In fact, having Celiac disease may cause joint pain, in which case following a gluten free diet likely will reduce joint pain. Also, rheumatoid arthritis (like Celiac disease) is an autoimmune disease, and being diagnosed with one increases your chances of also being diagnosed with the other (or other autoimmune diseases), in which case also making a gluten free diet necessary. However, there is minimal evidence that supports following a gluten free diet to reduce joint pain and inflammation in other scenarios involving arthritis.
Going gluten free will NOT help you lose weight or become healthier if you don't NEED a gluten free diet
The only time following a gluten free diet will help you lose weight is if it encourages you to eat less food and calories overall. Example: you are a carb lover who normally overdoes it on the portions of bread, pasta, cereal, etc. Following a gluten free diet may encourage you to eat less of these foods, if you aren't eating their gluten free equivalents instead. However, prepackaged gluten free products are often high in calories and low in fiber and other nutrients, so making the switch can actually encourage weight gain. Similarly, switching to gluten free products from higher fiber, whole grain, gluten containing products will not improve your health if you are already healthy.
Drawbacks of a gluten free diet
1. Cost - Gluten free products are typically more expensive than their standard counterparts. But with the increased availability of the products, prices have come down a bit. This can be combated by limiting intake of the packaged gluten free foods and instead getting carbs from non-specialty foods like potatoes, corn and rice.
2. Low fiber - A lot of the fiber in our diets come from wheat and other gluten-containing grain based foods. This means that following a gluten free diet can make it hard to get enough fiber. Anyone following a gluten free diet needs to be conscious to get fiber from vegetables, legumes and gluten-free grains (processed fibers should not be used on a regular basis because we don't know if they have the same benefits of intact fibers).
3. Difficulty - Following a strict gluten free diet can be very difficult. Cross-contamination is a real concern, as even a crumb of a non-gluten free product can contain enough gluten to cause symptoms in a person with Celiac disease or in some cases, gluten sensitivity. This means that in a household with only one gluten free follower, there may need to be separate condiments and a toaster. Eating at restaurants can also be challenging, but again, is becoming easier with increased awareness.
So there you go. If you've ever thought about trying a gluten free diet for it's marketed benefits, I hope you will make an informed decision. I'm sure that the popularity of gluten free diets (for those that don't need it) will fall by the wayside in favor of another diet.
On the other hand, I'm grateful for the recent surge in gluten free products and the awareness surrounding gluten free diets because it makes eating so much easier for people with Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity (ie. the people who DO need a a gluten free diet).
*If you think you might have Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, don't self-diagnose! If it turns out that you do have Celiac disease and you get tested for it while already following a gluten free diet, you may get a false negative test. See a doctor and/or dietitian and get any necessary tests done before self-treating!