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Is a gluten-free diet good for you — if there’s no medical reason for it?

It’s displayed on packaging for everything from granola to shrimp.

Gluten free labels are on everything, but should you be paying attention?

If a doctor has diagnosed you with Celiac Disease, an allergy or another condition that requires you to avoid wheat or gluten, you should heed their advice on what to eat. A diagnosis like that could mean eating gluten is causing harm.

But for everyone else, experts say the answer is more complicated.

Gluten free “becomes this synonym for health for people, and that’s actually very wrong. Just because it says ‘gluten free’ does not mean it’s healthy,” said Dawn Jackson Blatner, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who works with the Chicago Cubs.

Simply grabbing the gluten-free versions of the packaged food you normally buy won’t provide you any benefits, Blatner said.

Picking gluten free cereal, cookies and pretzels over ones with gluten could actually be introducing more chemicals and fillers into your diet, because those products are often made with overly-processed white rice and different kinds of starches, according to Blatner.

Those products are often more expensive, and can have more soy in them, which can be a source of other sensitivity problems, said Dr. Mary Tobin, the division director of allergy and immunology at Rush University Medical Center and co-director of Rush’s Celiac Disease and Food Sensitivity Clinic.

And there could be a risk of increased exposure to arsenic and mercury, according to a study published in the journal Epidemiology last year. The study, which examined five years of data collected in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, found that people who said they were eating gluten free diets had higher concentrations of arsenic in their urine and mercury in their blood than people who were not avoiding gluten.

The amounts of arsenic in the gluten free dieters’ urine were nearly two times higher, and the mercury levels were 70 percent higher, according to the study.

The potential for arsenic and mercury exposure is a particular concern for small children, Dr. Tobin said.

Additionally, eating a needlessly restrictive diet can impact the function of your gastrointestinal system, she added.

“The diversity of our diet helps the microbiome in the gut,” she said.

Without diversity, the wrong kinds of bacteria may flourish and increase inflammation, she said.

But we all know someone who cut out gluten and claims to feel amazing. What’s behind that?

It’s likely not the lack of gluten, Blatner said. Skipping the delivery pizza and pasta in favor of whole grains and sweet potatoes is really what is making the difference, she said.

Plus, the hunt for food that fits their new lifestyle has sent them into their own kitchens. Replacing packaged meals and dinners out with more home cooking can also be why people eating gluten free suddenly feel better, Blatner said.

“No kidding you guys feel better. Your diet is healthier,” Blatner said.

Paying more attention to the ingredients in your food — rather than the call out bubbles on the front of the packaging — is always a good idea, she added.

With or without gluten, a balanced diet should include grains, Dr. Tobin said.

Grains are an important source of B vitamins, Magnesium, Folate, fiber and other vitamins and minerals. With or without gluten, a balanced diet should include some form of grains, says one medical expert.|
Grains are an important source of B vitamins, Magnesium, Folate, fiber and other vitamins and minerals. With or without gluten, a balanced diet should include some form of grains, says one medical expert.|

Grains are an important source of B vitamins, Magnesium, Folate, fiber and other vitamins and minerals, so skipping them altogether isn’t recommended, Dr. Tobin said. People who go gluten-free can eat a wider variety of grains to get those benefits, she said.

So how do you know if you need to avoid gluten? Pay attention to what you eat and how you feel afterwards.

You’ll know within a few hours of eating if something isn’t right, Dr. Tobin said. Keep a food diary and note what you ate so you can pinpoint what might have caused any bloating, stomach pain or diarrhea.

If you are having problems after eating gluten, enlist a doctor to help figure out what could be causing it.

In people with Celiac Disease, a relatively rare autoimmune disorder, eating gluten leads to severe inflammation in the small intestine and can prevent proper absorption of nutrients. The disease is hereditary, meaning it can run in families.

But difficulties with gluten don’t immediately mean you have Celiac Disease. It could be a wheat allergy, or it could be a sensitivity to enzymes that have been added to wheat as part of engineering meant to make the grain hardier and resistant to fungus, Dr. Tobin said.

The enzymes, known as amylase trypsin inhibitors, can cause inflammation in the gut. Some people seem to be more sensitive to them than others, although it is not clear yet who is most susceptible, she added.

But if eating wheat or grains are not hurting you, there’s no reason to avoid them, she said.

“If you don’t need to take the whole grains out of your diet, it doesn’t really do you any favors.”

Diana Novak Jones is a Chicago-based freelance writer.