Gluten-free diets have soared in popularity over the past decade.
Nevertheless, does the research support the conclusion that restricting gluten leads to heart benefits? The short answer is ‘yes’, but with a caveat: If and only if you have Coeliac Disease. I think it's a major step forward that people who need to avoid gluten can now very easily do so, because gluten-free foods are increasingly available, and food labels clearly identify foods with or without gluten. Nevertheless, the links between gluten and heart health seem to have been exaggerated by the press, and in turn, these alleged risks have been oversold by food manufacturers.
What is gluten, and why is it a problem?
Gluten is a protein that is found in food products that contain wheat, rye, and barley.
In Coeliac Disease, sufferers have an immune reaction when they ingest gluten, and this triggers inflammation and causes intestinal damage. Additionally, Coeliac Disease is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, but that risk decreases when a gluten free diet is followed. For those who do have Coeliac Disease, the irritation caused by the proteins in gluten can interfere with the absorption of nutrients from the small intestine.
Long-term, the problem can lead to heart disease, osteoporosis, and in some cases, it can lead to cancer.
The link between gluten and heart attacks
A longitudinal study that was conducted over a period of 26 years has led to an upsurge in media interest about the possible link between gluten intake and heart attacks. The investigators of this research contended that there is a possible link between an increased risk of a heart attack and restricting gluten. Nevertheless, this link was found to be unrelated to the gluten itself, but instead, it was found to be due to the reduced consumption of grains or other grain-based products that could be associated with gluten consumption.
That is, ingestion of these products probably led to a reduction in overall fibre intake, and ostensibly, led to an increase in overall intake of unhealthy fats and sugars. Although media reporting of this research did not explore potential explanations for the link between gluten and heart attacks, it can be safely concluded from the study that if you are contemplating reducing your gluten intake for cardiovascular health, it’s not necessarily going to improve your heart health.
So, should I reduce or limit gluten?
If you are looking to reduce gluten for symptomatic reasons like bloating, better digestion, and better sense of well-being, then that is entirely reasonable, but unless you have Coeliac Disease, don’t expect a reduction in risk of heart attack. If you want to have a better handle on your cardiovascular risk and health, then instead of skipping on the gluten, skip along to your local doctor and ask about what technology is available these days to look at your arteries and see what risk you truly have when it comes to coronary artery disease.
Any time you eliminate whole categories of food you’ve been used to eating, you run the risk of nutritional deficiencies, so if in doubt, make an appointment with your GP to discuss a dietary plan that best meets your own nutritional needs.