Whether you need or want to go gluten-free, taking on the diet may result in these surprising unintended consequences.
- Jill Waldbieser, Reader’s Digest 1
By now you’ve heard of gluten, and you probably even know it’s the wheat protein that gives bread and other foods their shape and texture. But going gluten-free when you don’t have a diagnosed wheat allergy or celiac disease doesn’t promise weight loss or better health, according to science. That hasn’t stopped millions of people from giving the diet a try. Experts recommend consulting your primary health-care provider before making any drastic changes to your diet.
1. You might end up with cravings
- There’s no scientific evidence that a gluten-free diet will help you lose weight. “If you are avoiding gluten in an effort to lose weight, or are restricting it without medical necessity, you will likely see the effects that all diets eventually cause: food preoccupation, feelings of guilt around food, food cravings, and overeating,” says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, creator of the Ditch the Diet Challenge. It’s not necessarily the lack of gluten but the fact that you’re restricting yourself that can cause your body to switch into survival mode, leading to uncontrollable cravings, overeating, and binges.
2. You could miss out on muscle-building protein
- When Canadian researchers analyzed the nutritional content of gluten-free products from two major supermarkets, they found that overall, the products had less protein than similar foods that contain gluten. In this study, the researchers looked at products targeted to kids, but previous studies found similar results in foods marketed to adults. See study here.
3. You could end up constipated
- Many foods that contain gluten are good sources of fiber, like whole wheat bread and pasta. “Rice and quinoa pasta don’t have much fiber compared to whole-grain kinds,” says Carolina Guizar, RD, a registered dietitian and the founder of Eathority. And given that most Americans are getting way less fiber than they need, eliminating these common sources can make it even more difficult to get your fill. A lack of dietary fiber has been linked to chronic constipation, diabetes, and heart disease, so be sure to load up on naturally gluten-free sources like beans, produce, and quinoa to avoid those health pitfalls.
3. You could hamstring your immunity
- Your body uses B vitamins for plenty of things, from immune function to energy production. And one of the top sources of these diet essentials is fortified bread and cereals—which are off the menu when you go gluten-free. This puts you at risk of a deficiency, so it’s a good idea to pop a multivitamin or supplement, especially if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive, since the B vitamin folic acid can lower the risk of birth defects.
4. You won’t be stronger (or weaker)
- In an international survey of more than 900 pro athletes, more than one-third acknowledged that they followed a gluten-free diet even though they had no medical reason (such as celiac disease). Most felt that cutting out gluten enhanced their athletic performance and reduced stomach upset. However, when researchers tested this theory on a small study of 13 endurance athletes, they found that there was no significant difference in performance or gastrointestinal issues during their workouts. Read the survey here.
5. You could hurt your heart
- The authors of a 2017 study published in the British Medical Journal found that avoiding gluten could up your risk for cardiovascular disease. Here’s why: People who avoid gluten tend to cut back or eliminate whole grains, and a diet rich in whole grains is actually good for your heart. The researchers recommend that only people with celiac disease go gluten-free—everyone else should skip it. If you decide to try it anyway, at least be sure to get your fill of gluten-free whole grains, such as quinoa, amaranth, millet, corn, oats, and rice, says Ginger Hultin, RD, founder of Champagne Nutrition. Read the study here.
6. You could destabilize your blood sugar
- Gluten-containing foods are carbohydrates—they’ll raise your blood sugar when you eat them. If you replace them with the wrong thing, your blood sugar could rise even higher, Hultin warns. The processed foods made without gluten—gluten-free bread, pizza dough, baked goods, pasta, and crackers—will have the same basic effect on blood sugar because they’re still loaded with carbs. You can stabilize your blood sugar by replacing those foods with more proteins, healthy fats, and produce.
7. You could feel lonely
- “Restrictive diets can lead to people feeling socially isolated,” says Rumsey. “They may be worried about finding food they can or can’t eat, and get so preoccupied that they don’t like the thought of someone else preparing their meals.” That can cause you to cut back on social occasions where food is involved.
8. You might feel amazing
- Some people may notice an improvement in their energy level, and they report fewer headaches and stomach issues when they cut gluten out of their lives. The science on this is murky, but Hultin suspects it’s just that people have improved the overall quality of their diet by adding more nutritious whole foods, like fruits and vegetables and lean protein. “The inherent subjectivity in the diagnosis and resolution of these symptoms can make it challenging to truly assess if the dietary changes are working,” she points out. Hultin recommends keeping a detailed diet diary to track how you feel after eating certain types of food—it can be helpful in pinning down the diet that helps you feel better.
9. You could gain weight
- One of the symptoms of celiac disease is unexplained weight loss, says Guizar. So if you do have a sensitivity, cutting gluten could actually add some pounds to your frame. Weight gain can also be a side effect if you’re operating under the mistaken belief that you can eat as much as you want of gluten-free foods. This so-called health halo can cause people to discount the high amounts of calories, sugar, or fat in certain foods. Don’t be fooled.
10. Your gut could benefit
- Some research indicates that following a gluten-free diet could ease symptoms for people with irritable bowel syndrome or other chronic digestive issues. One possible explanation: Gluten-containing foods also happen to have FODMAPs (fermentable oligo-, di-, and monosaccharides and polyols). Essentially, that means they’re a kind of carbohydrate that some people have difficulty digesting. Eliminating these FODMAP foods—not gluten specifically—may ease gas, bloating, cramping, constipation, and diarrhea, says Guizar.
11. You may start thinking more clearly
- When they do eat gluten, many celiac sufferers report a “brain fog”—a kind of foggy-headed lethargy. No one understands why this happens yet, says Guizar, and it depends entirely on the individual and his or her sensitivity levels, but it’s been reported enough to be believable. She recommends discussing your symptoms with a health-care provider, but above all, she stresses, “Listen to your body.” If you eliminate gluten-containing foods for a week and those symptoms fade, take note.