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Is gluten-free food harmful to healthy people?

© Petra Reinartz / fotolia.de

[01.06.2017]

More and more people are intentionally eating gluten-free. For patients with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, this sort of diet is essential. Healthy people do not benefit – on the contrary.

Bread, noodles, muesli: ever more food is advertised as gluten-free. Gluten is mainly found in wheat and spelt, but also in rye, oats and barley. In up to one percent of the population, this protein causes a severe inflammatory reaction in the intestines, called celiac disease. "For these people, a gluten-free diet is essential in order to prevent malnutrition and long-term complications such as lymph gland cancer," says Dr. Peter Hasselblatt, head of the outpatient intestinal clinic in the Department of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, Endocrinology, and Infectious Diseases at the Medical Center - University of Freiburg.

Apart from celiac disease, gluten intolerance is another syndrome receiving increasing medical attention. This intolerance leads to symptoms such as diarrhea, bloating and extreme fatigue after eating. However, unlike celiac disease, gluten intolerance does not lead to long-term complications. But a lot of people use gluten-free products even without pronounced symptoms or a doctor's diagnosis. The reasons for this are diverse. "Many people assume that gluten is unhealthy, and hope for general health-enhancing effects from this diet such as weight loss or protecting the coronary vessels," the gastroenterologist says.

Arbitrary changes may be harmful to your health

But in healthy people, no positive effect on body weight, coronary health or general fitness is scientifically proven. "It is not recommended that a long-term change of diet be carried out on this basis: it is not only expensive but can even be harmful to your health," says this Medical Center - University of Freiburg expert.

Scientists have now shown this in a large US study. They evaluated two observational studies in which 45,000 women and 65,000 men were asked about their health every four years over a period of 30 years. People whose diet was particularly gluten-rich, for example with a lot of wheat, were just as healthy as the average.

On the other hand, those who had an especially low-gluten diet were diagnosed with heart disease somewhat more frequently than average. The cause could lie in the completely altered diet that gluten abstinence requires. This is because, among other things, whole grain products are avoided. But whole grain products are proven to have a heart-protecting effect. "So this sort of low-gluten diet can put a strain on health rather than promoting it," says Dr. Hasselblatt.

What to do if you suspect celiac disease or gluten intolerance?

Anyone who reacts to the consumption of gluten-containing foods with severe digestive problems should consult a specialist. Because even gluten intolerance is difficult to diagnose. "It is important not to proceed with a gluten-free diet on your own. In the end, this also makes it more difficult to establish a possible celiac disease or gluten intolerance," advises Dr. Hasselblatt.

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