The term gluten refers to protein found in the grains wheat, rye and barley. People affected by celiac disease and gluten sensitivity must avoid all foods containing gluten; currently, the gluten-free diet is the only treatment for these conditions. Approximately one percent of Americans have celiac disease and another 6% are estimated to suffer from gluten sensitivity, yet many others believe going gluten-free leads to good health.
Despite purported health claims often seen in the media, Gaesser found there is no evidence that the gluten-free diet provides benefits to the general population and that gluten itself may, in fact, provide important benefits, such as supporting heart, gut and immune system health. Likewise, he explored the perception that the gluten-free diet is effective for weight loss. After reviewing the existing research on gluten, Gaesser concluded the gluten-free diet is not an effective weight-loss method. In fact, it frequently leads to weight gain because many gluten-free products contain more added fats and sugars than their gluten-containing counterparts.
"This paper is one of the first to look at the other side of the gluten craze. While the gluten-free diet is an important medical treatment for people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, far too many Americans are following the diet for reasons that simply do not make sense," says Gaesser. "Even though it has been endorsed by celebrities for weight loss, let's face it – they are not the experts on nutrition and health. It's time to listen to the science."
These findings run counter to a recent Harris survey of more than 2,000 adults polled about their perceptions and use of the gluten-free diet. Of those participants who followed the diet, half reported doing it to "feel better" and 26% as a "diet for losing weight." Furthermore, according to a 2011 report from Packaged Facts, the gluten-free product market grew by a rate of 30% each year between 2006 and 2010; reasons for this rapid growth include more accurate testing methods for celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, the perception gluten-free products are healthier in addition to endorsements from celebrities.