Is Gluten Bad for You?

Is Gluten Bad for You?

You have probably heard of people going on a gluten-free diet for their health and wondered, “Is gluten bad for you?” The answer: maybe—it depends on the individual.

Gluten is not inherently bad for you unless you have certain underlying conditions, such as celiac disease. However, for most people, gluten is OK to eat. Cutting gluten out of your diet could be detrimental to your health due to vitamin and mineral deficiencies associated with the diet.

In this article, learn about the effects of gluten on the body and whether gluten is bad for you.

What Is Gluten, and Is It Actually Bad for You?

Gluten is a protein found in the grains of wheat, barley, and rye and in products made from these grains, such as bread, soy sauce, malt vinegar, beer, and more. In baking, gluten helps hold ingredients together like “glue.”

Contrary to popular belief, gluten is not “bad” for you unless you have a specific medical condition that requires a gluten-free diet.

Potential Negative Effects of Gluten

For most people, gluten does not affect them, and eating a diet containing gluten is healthier than removing gluten from the diet.

However, gluten can have an autoimmune and inflammatory effect on people with certain conditions.

In less than 1% of people with celiac disease, gluten acts as a trigger for the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine, leading to malabsorption, inflammation, villous atrophy, and hundreds of possible symptoms.

Conditions That Gluten Could Worsen

Some health conditions benefit from a gluten-free diet, with the primary and unrefuted one being celiac disease. Research on the effects of gluten is limited or ongoing for many of these conditions.

Celiac Disease

The gluten protein and gluten-free diet were discovered in 1941 as a treatment for celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which the white blood cells attack the lining of the small intestine when gluten is ingested. This is a genetic, inherited condition, and the only available treatment is a strict, lifelong gluten-free diet.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), also called gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity, is when a person reacts to gluten but does not have an autoimmune response or wheat allergy.

This is a relatively newly acknowledged condition, and there is some controversy regarding it. Some scientists suggest that there may be other triggers besides gluten, namely amylase-trypsin inhibitors (ATIs) and FODMAPs (fermentable oligo-, di-, and mono-saccharides and polyols).5

Wheat Allergy vs. Celiac Disease vs. Gluten Intolerance

Unlike celiac disease and gluten intolerance, people with wheat allergy are not reacting to gluten. They have an allergic response to wheat but will be able to eat non-wheat sources of gluten (such as barley and rye). However, many people with wheat allergies do buy gluten-free products or order from gluten-free menus due to overlap and availability.

Inflammatory Conditions

Other than celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, scientists have theorized that a gluten-free diet may benefit certain inflammatory conditions.

Inflammatory conditions in which there is limited research to support a gluten-free diet include:

  • Arthritis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

The benefits of a gluten-free diet for other conditions, such as endometriosis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, autism spectrum disorder, and more, have also been studied. However, there is not enough evidence to support the recommendation of a gluten-free diet for those conditions.

Is a Gluten-Free Diet Recommended for Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders. Sometimes, a gluten-free diet is recommended as treatment. However, the evidence for a gluten-free diet for IBS is conflicting and inconsistent. Scientists say there is not enough evidence to suggest a gluten-free diet for people with IBS. More evidence supports the benefits of a low-FODMAP diet for IBS.

When to Consider Going Gluten-Free

Do not go gluten-free before being tested for celiac disease. This is because you must be consuming gluten for celiac disease tests to be accurate.

People with celiac disease need to avoid gluten to a greater degree than those with gluten intolerance or other conditions. They cannot have any cross-contact (for example, they must use a separate toaster, clean all pots and pans, not eat food fried in shared oil, and more).1415 For this reason, getting an accurate diagnosis is essential.

Living as if you have celiac disease when you don’t have it can be socially and nutritionally limiting. On the flip side, not adhering strictly enough to a gluten-free diet when you do have celiac disease can lead to serious health consequences.

If you have symptoms of celiac disease or gluten intolerance, such as bloating, nausea, brain fog, diarrhea, constipation, and more, talk to a healthcare provider about a diagnosis.

Who Can Eat Gluten Without Problems?

Most people can eat gluten without problems. Only those diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should avoid gluten.16 A few other inflammatory conditions may also benefit from avoiding gluten, but speak to a healthcare provider before changing your diet.

To put this in context, less than 1% of the general population has celiac disease. We know much less about gluten sensitivity, but according to self-report studies, this affects somewhere between 0.5% and 13% of the population.

Based on those statistics, most of the population should be able to eat gluten without problems. The gluten-free diet itself can be damaging to your health, so it is best to avoid it unless it is essential.


Gluten is a naturally occurring protein in wheat, barley, and rye. Going gluten-free is not necessarily better for your health; in fact, gluten-free diets are associated with nutritional deficiencies and heart disease.

Only people with specific medical conditions, such as celiac disease or gluten intolerance, can benefit from the gluten-free diet.


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