What Is Gluten, Anyway?

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Going gluten-free has quickly become one of the trendiest diets, right up there with ditching meat or eating all-organic. For some people, eliminating gluten is a medical must. But many folks shun it because they think they'll lose weight or that it's just somehow healthier – even though they don't understand what gluten really is.

"Gluten isn't some fattening ingredient, and avoiding it isn't a golden ticket to weight loss," says Alice Bast, president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. "It's simply a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and their derivatives." Which means gluten is everywhere – in most breads, cereals, pastas, beer, and baked goods. It also lurks in many soups, sauces, dips, and even deli meat, says Bast.

There are certain people who truly have to avoid gluten. According to Bast, about 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, meaning that gluten triggers an autoimmune response throughout their bodies. This widespread inflammation especially damages the small intestines, leaving them unable to absorb essential nutrients from food. "People with celiac disease must be on a gluten-free diet," says Bast. "Just like insulin is the treatment for diabetes, gluten-free diet is the treatment for celiac disease."

Another 6 percent of Americans have some degree of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, says Bast. For these people, consuming gluten doesn't result in intestinal damage, but it can cause bloating, gas, achy joints, and brain fog. Avoiding the protein may make them feel better.

But for everyone else – roughly 93 percent of Americans – there's absolutely no need to go gluten-free. "Unless you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, there is zero nutritional benefit of removing gluten from your diet," says Joan Salge Blake, RD, a health sciences professor at Boston University and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

In fact, eliminating gluten for any reason other than a medical need can do you more harm than good. According to Salge Blake, if you cut out grains entirely, you'll cheat yourself out of fiber, folic acid, iron, and many other vitamins and minerals. And while you can swap in gluten-free grain products, these are often less healthy than the originals. "Usually, when gluten is taken out of foods, especially bakery items, there's more fat and sugar added in to make them palatable," Salge Blake says. "A gluten-free cookie doesn't magically morph into an apple."

Another common misconception about gluten-free diets is they help you lose weight. It's true that people sometimes drop pounds, but ditching gluten isn't the reason why. Rather, Salge Blake says it's likely because they've cut back on carbohydrate-heavy foods that happen to contain gluten.

If you do suspect you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, head to the doctor before overhauling your diet. To test for celiac, you must be currently consuming gluten. "Casually experimenting with the gluten-free diet could prevent you from receiving an accurate diagnosis," Bast says. If the test shows you don't have celiac, then work with your doctor or dietitian to tinker your diet in order to pinpoint whether you're sensitive to gluten.