It seems everywhere you go these days, someone is turning their back on gluten thinking that a gluten-free diet is the answer to their health and weight woes. But is it?

Probably not.

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. There are many ingredients on food labels that indicate a food contains gluten, including barley, bulgur, cereal binding, couscous, durum, einkorn, emmer, filler, farro, graham flour, kamut, malt, malt extract, malt flavoring, malt syrup, rye, semolina, spelt, triticale, wheat, wheat bran, wheat germ and wheat starch. That means you can’t just give up bread, pasta, cereal, pizza and cookies if you want to go gluten-free. Gluten can be found in many products, from sauces and prepared foods to vitamin supplements.

Who Should Follow A Gluten-Free Diet?

Celiac disease. The only people who need to follow a strict gluten-free diet are people who have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the ingestion of even tiny amounts of gluten results in damage to the small intestine. This causes gastrointestinal discomfort and interferes with the proper absorption of nutrients from food which can lead to a host of health issues. The only way to know for sure if you have celiac disease is by having an intestinal biopsy performed by a licensed health professional.

Gluten sensitivity. Some people may also have gluten sensitivity. This means you can still get symptoms, such as gastrointestinal upset, bloating, headaches and fatigue, after consuming gluten but the gluten doesn’t cause your small intestine to be damaged. Those who are sensitive to gluten may have to reduce the amount of gluten in their diet without eliminating it completely.

What If You Don’t Have Celiac Disease Or Gluten Sensitivity?

Some people decide to cut gluten out of their diets even if they don’t have celiac or gluten sensitivity because they think it will make them feel better, reduce bloating, combat fatigue or help them lose weight. And in some cases it does. But it may not be the absence of gluten that should get all the credit.

Rather, improvements are often the result of a reduction in high-calorie foods being consumed, such as bread, pasta, cookies and snack foods. By eliminating gluten, many people also reduce the amount of processed or junk foods they eat, which can be a good thing if they’re replaced by natural, healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables.

What Are The Risks Of A Gluten-Free Diet?

Studies have found that gluten-free diets often lack important nutrients, such as fiber, iron, calcium, folate, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, phosphorus, zinc and vitamin B12. Many fortified breads and cereals are a major source of B vitamins. Whole wheat is a major source of dietary fiber, which many Americans don’t get enough of. When you take those out of your diet completely, it’s difficult to get enough of the nutrients you need from other foods unless you have a nutrient dense diet.

Aside from missing out on important nutrients when you go gluten-free, there are also now many foods marketed to consumers as “gluten-free” that are still mostly junk food – with plenty of calories but not much nutritional value – not to mention a high price tag. People mistakenly equate a gluten-free label with a food being healthy, but that is not the case. This may lead to the consumption of excess empty calories.

If you find you feel better by reducing the amount of gluten in your diet and can get the nutrients you need through other foods, there’s no reason you can’t go gluten-free. Just keep in mind that it takes some work, can be costly and may not be the instant answer to your health and weight loss issues.