The debate over gluten is certainly confusing. While there have been several high-profile articles warning against gluten-free diets for the average healthy person (see this article on today.com for an example), it’s also not hard to find a friend or someone in the office who has some sort of gluten-free success story. Who should you believe? Does gluten really do all of the bad things that people say it does?
Gluten free diets are only medically needed by people who suffer from celiac disease, an immune disorder that attacks the small intestine. In contrast, the enormous popularity of going gluten free is not supported by medical need – instead, it’s bolstered by a number of medical-sounding gluten myths that speak to healthy people with common health concerns. In this article, we’ll pit these myths – which cover water weight, acne, rough skin, and hormonal problems – against established facts and learn why gluten is NOT behind them. We’ll also discuss the many benefits of wheat that you’d miss on a gluten-free diet.
Myth 1: Gluten causes water weight gain.
You may feel like you have less weight around the middle on a gluten-free diet, but carbs are actually behind this myth. Gluten is not a carbohydrate – it is a protein – and both carbs and protein are present in wheat. It naturally follows that if you avoid wheat bread, you are also avoiding the second largest source of carbs in the American diet (after soft drinks and next to cakes, cookies, pastries, and pies) .
The factors that influence how much water weight you carry – like hormones, your water intake, and your salt intake – are dynamic, so your weight can fluctuate by a few pounds each day. Carbohydrate consumption is another such factor. The short-term energy reserves in your liver are made up of carbs that have been converted into glycogen. The glycogen is ‘hydrated’ so that you retain about 2.5 grams of water for each gram of stored glycogen. When you eat fewer carbs, you store less glycogen and you retain less water. Reverse the process and you can also see why you initially lose water weight on a low-carb diet. 
The real question is, should you deliberately eat to avoid those few pounds of water, or is it healthier to invest in stretch denim? Losing water weight will only get you so far – eventually you need to further reduce calories to achieve sustainable weight loss, and a gluten-free diet is neither a good short-term nor a good long-term way to go about this. Gluten-free diets are not necessarily low in calories nor low in carbs if you eat processed foods or rice and potato flours, and, after a time, you are likely to become deficient in folate, calcium, iron, and zinc [3,4]. And if you’re thinking about adopting a typical low-carb diet instead, remember that while carb counting is important for diabetics, the benefit to others is unclear.
Myth 2: Gluten causes acne.
Carbs also seem to be responsible for this myth, too. After years of uncertainty as to whether sugar or chocolate really does cause acne, it is starting to look like refined carbohydrates and dairy aggravate or influence acne by way of insulin and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). [5,6] IGF-1 is a growth hormone, but it continues to play a role in the body throughout adulthood.
Just as we discussed for water weight, avoiding wheat in order to (unnecessarily) avoid gluten can come with the side benefit of lowering your consumption of refined carbohydrates and reducing your acne. Now, does this necessarily mean that you should switch to a low-carb diet instead? No. As registered dietitian Jennifer Burris points out , the research to establish dietary guidelines for acne has yet to be conducted, and the best approach for managing acne is for each individual to work with their doctor and a dietitian to develop a solution that fits their particular situation.
Myth 3: Gluten causes “chicken skin” or keratosis pilaris.
Keratosis pilaris (KP) is a benign skin condition that looks a bit like permanent goose bumps on the arms, thighs, and buttocks , although the bumps are much rougher than goose bumps. In KP, excess keratin – a key protein in our outer layer of skin and in our hair and nails – plugs the hair follicule, sometimes trapping a small hair inside.  Keratosis pilaris is quite common – it affects around 50% of adolescents (80% of females) and 40% of adults – and seems to have a strong hereditary component. 
Keratosis pilaris is not caused by gluten-induced intestinal damage, as is claimed in this myth, and, in fact, keratosis pilaris is not common in celiac disease, the worst case scenario of gluten sensitivity. The only connection between KP and food seems to be a positive association with body mass index [9,10]. Less clear is a relationship between insulin resistance, IGF-1, and KP (also reported in the previous references), which is only speculation at this point.
Myth 4: Gluten causes hormone imbalances.
According to this myth, gluten produces intestinal inflammation that places stress on the adrenal glands, which in turn interferes with the sex hormones. Symptoms include water retention, acne, moodiness, extra body fat, migraines, fatigue, and many others – a little something for both younger and older women, and men, too. This myth is actually a new variant of an old idea from alternative medicine known as adrenal fatigue. In adrenal fatigue, the adrenal glands are called on to produce more and more of the stress hormone cortisol and eventually become exhausted. However, adrenal fatigue wasn’t true before gluten sensitivity came along, and it still isn’t true now.
But isn’t avoiding gluten just good sense?
To some, gluten-free dieting has its own sort of logic: since humans cannot fully digest gluten, and since modern wheat has been bred to have a high gluten content, then eating less wheat brings us back to the way things should be. But while longing for a low-gluten past may be a lovely bit of nostalgia, that’s all it is. Most people have no medical reason to avoid gluten, and no one has actually shown that the hybridization of modern wheat has led to a rise in any illness.
In fact, it is even wrong to think that the gluten content of wheat has been deliberately altered over the past several thousand years.  And true, many products today like supermarket breads contain an added gluten powder called vital gluten, and our consumption of vital gluten has tripled since 1977; however, this added gluten is still less than one-tenth of the overall gluten intake for most people. 
Despite wheat getting a bad rap today because of gluten (and earlier this century because of the high glycemic index of many foods based on white flour), there are actually health benefits to eating wheat – and possibly even gluten! Before you go gluten free by choice, take a look at some of wheat’s virtues:
- Wheat contains a type of carb known as fructans, and one of these is the inulin that you’ll see listed in the ingredients of high fiber or prebiotic processed foods. Fructans help to support certain beneficial bacteria in the gut, which may in turn protect us against some cancers, some inflammatory conditions, and cardiovascular disease.  On the down side, fructans can make you gassy and bloated, but remember not to blame gluten for this.
- Whole grains lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, lower total and LDL cholesterol levels, and decrease the serum concentration of C-reactive protein, a marker of low grade inflammation. [13-15] Whole grains contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, but we don’t know which of these (or which combination) is responsible for their protective effects ; this makes it difficult to come up with a good substitute for whole grains, and whole wheat figures prominently into many whole grain foods.
- Gluten itself may indirectly help boost the immune system and lower blood pressure. 
All things considered, a gluten-free diet is not really necessary for healthy people and may actually be detrimental.
Gluten myths seem to persist because of gluten’s association with carbohydrates – avoiding wheat to avoid gluten can also alleviate certain problems that are aggravated by carbs, giving the false impression that gluten is to blame. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: for otherwise healthy individuals, a healthy, balanced diet will always be better than one that eliminates a staple food or an entire food group. If you do have health concerns, don’t go it alone. Speak with a doctor or a registered dietitian.
Last updated July 9, 2015
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