It's not just people with celiac disease who may benefit from a gluten free diet. Avoiding gluten-containing foods and products can have any number of positive health benefits, whether you have gluten-related medical conditions or not—as long as you maintain a balanced, healthy diet. Balance is the key.
Regardless of if you have gluten intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, or you're just choosing to stick to a gluten free lifestyle out of solidarity with a gluten free family member, it's important to maintain balance and to make sure you replace the fiber and nutrients you'd normally get from gluten-containing grains.
If you've already decided to go on a gluten free diet, but you're new to it, see this primer on how to go gluten free.
Disclaimer: All of the content on this website, including this page, is for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice, which I am not in any way qualified to give. All product facts and information, particularly information about processing and labeling, are specific to the United States.
The potential health benefits of a gluten free diet
If you're allergic to wheat, have celiac disease, or nonceliac gluten sensitivity, then following a gluten free diet is your path back to health. Adhering to a strict gluten free diet is your only option.
I often hear from readers of this blog who have been told by their doctor to try a gluten free diet for many conditions related to body inflammation. Clearly, doctors are telling patients with such conditions as IBD, PCOS, and even arthritis may still benefit from a well-balanced gluten free diet.
Improved digestive health
Improved digestive health is the most immediate and significant benefit for most people who go gluten free. This is especially true if you have celiac disease or a sensitivity or intolerance to gluten.
Gluten can cause a variety of digestive issues in some people, ranging from mild discomfort to severe pain, and can significantly impact your quality of life. The most common symptoms include bloating, gas, and diarrhea, but can also extend to constipation, abdominal pain, and even nausea.
When people with gluten sensitivity eliminate gluten from their diet, they often experience a significant reduction, if not complete elimination, of these symptoms very quickly.
Certainly in patients with celiac disease a strict gluten free diet resolves many gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhea, constipation, bloating, abdominal pain, and gas. For many participants, symptoms began to resolve in just a day or two, with an average recovery time of 4 weeks. (Source.)
If you believe you are gluten sensitive, going gluten free can also be life-changing. It can be like giving your digestive system a fresh start, allowing it to heal and function more effectively.
When your gut is happy, it can have a positive ripple effect on your overall health – from boosting your immune system to improving your mood. Of course, always consult a medical professional first!
Increased energy levels
If you've been feeling perpetually tired or sluggish, gluten consumption might be playing a role. It's a common complaint among those with gluten sensitivity, and the science backs it up. But how does this work, and why does going gluten free often lead to increased energy levels?
Gluten, in those sensitive to it, can create a weak intestinal barrier. And that can lead to inflammation in the body when gluten is consumed. (Source.)
When your digestive system isn't absorbing nutrients, including adequate amounts of iron, from the food you eat, you will be fatigued. When you remove gluten from your diet, you're allowing your body to heal from any inflammation or damage caused by gluten.
With nutrients more available to your body from whatever food you do eat, your body will have time to heal. As your gut heals, it can better absorb nutrients from your food, providing your body with the energy it needs.
And, if you're newly eating gluten free, you're probably also paying more attention to your diet. That may lead to your making healthier choices and getting more nutrient-rich food into your body, which further boosts your energy levels and your overall health.
Reduced chronic inflammation
When inflammation persists, it can lead to a host of health problems. Chronic inflammation is linked to a variety of conditions, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis.
And this is an even more significant issue for people with untreated NCGS or celiac disease. For those people, consuming gluten triggers an immune response that leads to inflammation in the small intestine.
Over time, in those with celiac disease, it has been established that this chronic inflammation damages the lining of the small intestine, leading to nutrient malabsorption, and all kinds of other health problems.
Potential weight loss benefits
Weight loss is a complex process influenced by many factors, and while a gluten free diet isn't designed to contribute to weight loss, it can potentially contribute to a healthier weight in some ways that are related to the diet, although not a direct result of it.
Many foods that contain gluten are processed and high in refined carbohydrates and sugars, such as bread, pasta, pastries, and many packaged snacks. These foods can lead to weight gain when consumed in excess due to their high calorie content and low nutrient density.
When you first go gluten free, you're often cutting out these processed foods and replacing them with healthier, whole food alternatives. This can naturally lead to a reduction in empty calorie intake and an increase in eating nutrient-dense foods, which can contribute to weight loss.
For example, instead of a bagel for breakfast (which is high in refined carbohydrates and low in nutrients), you might have a smoothie made with fruits, vegetables, and a gluten free protein powder. This swap not only reduces your intake of processed foods but also increases your intake of fiber and protein, both of which can help with weight loss by keeping you feeling full and satisfied.
However, it's important to note that not all gluten free foods are healthy, and some can be just as high in calories and sugar as their gluten-containing counterparts.
Gluten free does not automatically mean healthy or low calorie, so it's important to read food labels and make informed choices. Contrary to popular belief, though, gluten free foods are not higher in sugar, fat or calories necessarily than their gluten-containing counterparts. It's all a matter of choices.
Enhanced skin health
The health of our skin is often a reflection of our internal health, and for some people, consuming gluten can lead to a variety of skin issues. This is because gluten can cause inflammation in the body, and this inflammation can manifest on the skin in various ways, including acne, eczema, and psoriasis.
If you have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease and eliminate gluten from your diet, you may notice an improvement in your skin health. (Source.) This may be due to a reduction in inflammation and an improvement in nutrient absorption, both of which can have a positive impact on the skin.
It is not only the skin condition called dermatitis herpetiformis that is linked to celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Studies have also shown a link between gluten consumption and with other skin conditions, and improvements in those conditions once the patient starts eating gluten free.
Improved cognitive function
The connection between the gut and the brain, often referred to as the “gut-brain axis,” appears to be very significant. What we eat can significantly impacts our brain function, and for some people, consuming gluten can lead to cognitive issues such as brain fog, difficulty concentrating, and even mood disorders.
Often, when people start their gluten free journey, they report improvements in their cognitive function. Symptoms like brain fog, difficulty concentrating, and mood swings can decrease or even disappear entirely. Studies indicate a strong link between celiac disease and cognitive impairment. And the earlier you adopt a gluten free diet, the better for your brain.
A healthier heart
For some people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a gluten free diet can contribute to a healthier heart.
For example, scientific study has found that people with celiac disease were at a greater risk of a variety of heart diseases, including cardiomyopathy, stroke, thrombosis, and ischemic heart disease.
Although the causes and links mostly need further research, many experts agree this is likely related to nutrient malabsorption brought about by the inflammation caused by gluten and damage to the villi in the intestine. For instance, deficiencies in nutrients like fiber, potassium, and magnesium – all of which are crucial for heart health – are common in individuals with untreated celiac disease.
Plus, we know that gluten causes chronic inflammation, and chronic inflammation is a known risk factor for heart disease, as it can lead to damage in the arteries and other parts of the cardiovascular system.d
Cancer is a complex disease with many contributing factors, and diet can be one of them. For individuals with celiac disease, adhering to a gluten free diet is not just a matter of managing symptoms – it's a crucial step in reducing the risk of certain types of cancer.
Now, going gluten free doesn't guarantee that you won't get cancer. Nothing can do that. In fact, based on fairly extensive research, abstaining from gluten if you don't have a gluten-related condition has no effect on your risks of cancers of any type.
But, if you have CD, then yes, eliminating gluten can reduce your risk of certain cancers of the digestive system.
Improved bone health
Our bones are the structural framework of our bodies, and keeping them strong and healthy is crucial for our overall health. For individuals with celiac disease, maintaining bone health can be particularly challenging.
The nutrient malabsorption associated with CD includes calcium and vitamin D, which are essential for bone health. Over time, this can lead to a decrease in bone density, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
As the digestive tract heals and starts to normally process and absorb nutrients, bone density can recover. If low bone density has been diagnosed, it's worth getting it checked regularly, though, to make sure you're recovering adequately.
Enhanced immune function
The immune system is our body's defense against illness and disease, and maintaining a healthy immune system is crucial for our overall health. But if you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system attacks your own body.
We know that the damage caused to the intestines and your gut health causes issues with nutrient absorption, which has a negative impact on the immune system, leaving it weakened and your body more vulnerable.
So, as your body heals, your immune system is no longer overworked and your body is able to better absorb nutrients. Therefore, your immune system can return to its healthier, gluten free state, ready to defend you against your environment.
Potential drawbacks of and misconceptions about the diet
While a gluten free diet can offer numerous health benefits, particularly for those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, it's not without potential pitfalls. Let's talk about some common misconceptions and explore the potential drawbacks of a gluten free diet.
One of the most common misconceptions is that “gluten free” automatically equates to “healthy”. This is not necessarily the case. While many naturally gluten free foods are healthy – think fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and most whole grains – not all gluten free foods are created equal.
Many processed gluten free products, such as breads, pastas, and baked goods, can be high in sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial ingredients. They can also be lower in nutrients compared to their gluten-containing counterparts. This is because wheat products are often fortified with vitamins and minerals, while gluten free alternatives are not always fortified.
So, it's really important that you pay attention to what you're eating and aim for a balanced diet. Then again, that has always been the obligation of every individual who wants to care for their overall health.
I love cookies, which is obvious from so many gluten free cookie recipes on the blog. I would never tell anyone not to partake. Same goes for every type of gluten free cake imaginable? Just use common sense to balance everything out with whole foods in a varied diet.