Are there risks to following a gluten-free diet?

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, spelt, kamut, barley and rye. Oats don’t contain gluten, but are typically processed on the same equipment meaning that someone following a strict gluten-free diet would need to avoid standard oats and could only consume wheat-free oats.

Why would someone need to avoid gluten?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where consuming gluten causes damage to one’s intestines and impairs absorption of nutrients. Celiac disease can have a range of symptoms including, but not limited to, stomach upset and bloating, constipation, diarrhea, chronically low iron levels, fatigue, a skin rash, and joint aches or pains. Anyone with a family history of celiac disease or another autoimmune disease such as type 1 diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis, has a greater risk of celiac disease. If you suspect that you may be affected, it’s really important to speak to a doctor about getting testing prior to cutting gluten out of your food routine.

Some individuals who test negative for celiac disease may still have a hunch that they have a sensitivity or intolerance to gluten. It’s important to talk to a registered dietitian to discuss food options if you think this might be the case for you. Often, there are many potential triggers, other than gluten, for digestive upset.

Are there risks to avoiding gluten?

Absolutely. A gluten-free diet is often promoted as being healthier, but the truth is that it’s expensive, hard to follow, and often less nutritious. Wheat-based products are fortified with important nutrients such as iron and B vitamins, while gluten-free products are not, meaning that gluten-free breads and crackers are often much lower in nutrients than their whole-grain wheat equivalents. To make gluten-free breads and cookies palatable, companies need to use sugar, oils, and refined starches. Gluten-free products are often low in fibre and don’t keep you full for very long.

The bottom line: switching to a gluten-free diet should not be taken lightly. It’s absolutely necessary for some individuals, but for others it will only result in a diet that is lower in nutrients, less satisfying and very expensive. Be sure to talk to a dietitian prior to changing your food routine.

So, is it possible to eat healthy on a gluten-free diet?

Absolutely. While processed gluten-free options (breads, muffins, granola bars, cereals) are expensive and low in nutrients, there are many great whole-grain gluten-free options that most people have never tried. Some great options to look into include amaranth, millet, teff, sorghum and buckwheat. You might have noticed these as ingredients in packaged gluten-free products, but each grain can be bought on it’s own as well and cooked up to be used in salads, stir fries, porridges, soups and stews.

Questions about your diet and nutrition needs? All University of Guelph students have access to Student Wellness Services nutrition services (free and fee-based options are available). Students can access these services in three ways: