The great gluten debate has been in full swing for years—and shows no signs of taking a breather.
Some claim our digestive systems aren’t equipped to handle gluten, which is a category of elastic protein found in certain grains that lends breads, pasta, and other baked goods a delightful chewiness, and is also used as a binding agent in loads of food products.
The no-gluten camp—a group that includes Paleo eaters and Bulletproof adherents—believes gluten proteins cause a whole range of inflammation-related symptoms, including bloating and stomach pain, fatigue, foggy thinking, and even depression. They say all of us would be better off cutting gluten from our diets.
Many experts agree that those symptoms can be associated with gluten-related allergies or sensitivities—most notably celiac disease. But those same experts tend to refute the idea that all people struggle to digest gluten proteins.
“We know it can induce inflammation in a small percentage of people,” says Alessio Fasano, M.D., director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital. “But for those not experiencing symptoms, giving up gluten is going to deprive the diet of crucial elements, and for most of us is an unnecessary extreme.”
Here’s what we know today about gluten and human health:
Eating Gluten Can Cause Negative Effects In Some People
If you’re among the roughly 1 percent of people who suffer from celiac disease, eating gluten may cause stomach pain or cramps, diarrhea, weight loss, rashes, headaches and other symptoms, Dr. Fasano says.
While some experts disagree with him, Dr. Fasano says a second subset of people—around 5 percent of the population, he estimates—suffer from a condition known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), which can cause the symptoms mentioned above, as well as headaches, joint or muscle pain, leg or arm numbness, depression, and anemia.
Part of the disagreement stems from the fact that, as of today, there is no agreed-upon diagnostic criteria for NCGS. Some experts believe people are blaming gluten for symptoms that are the result of other ailments, or largely in their own heads. Dr. Fasano says the symptoms of NCGS may also result from sensitivities to other grain proteins besides those found in gluten.
There are a lot of unknowns. But more and more experts now believe some kind of non-celiac grain sensitivity exists.
Gluten Itself Does Nothing For You
“Gluten is nutritionally useless,” Dr. Fasano says. It’s not something your body uses, so if you cut it (and only it) out of your diet tomorrow, there’d be no downside. That said . . .
Cutting Gluten-Containing Foods Puts You at Risk For Nutritional Deficiencies
Removing gluten from your diet requires you to 86 a lot of fiber- and micronutrient-packed foods—particularly whole grains. “When you go gluten free, key elements of a healthy diet are going to be eliminated,” Dr. Fasano says. “You can get into trouble, and so removing gluten is not something to be done lightly or without a physician’s supervision.”
Many Gluten-Containing Foods Also Happen to Be Junk Foods
Many people lose weight or feel healthier after cutting out gluten, but experts say that may have less to do with the protein itself than with the fact that chips, cookies, fast-food goodies, and many other junk foods contain gluten—and make up a big chunk of the average American’s diet.
“If you embrace a gluten-free diet, the first thing you realize is you cannot eat junk food,” Dr. Fasano says. “And of course, avoiding junk food is going to make you feel better.”
Many gluten-containing foods—again, breads, cereals and pasta—are also loaded with FODMAPs, a class of short-chain carbohydrates linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other gut issues, says Peter Gibson, M.D., a professor of gastroenterology at Australia’s Monash University.
If you have a problem digesting FODMAPs, going gluten-free could inadvertently resolve or ease your symptoms, he says.
Gluten-Free Foods Are Not Inherently Healthy
Reading the words “gluten-free” on a food package tells you next to nothing about its nutritional qualities, says Joseph Murray, M.D., a professor of medicine and GI doctor at Mayo Clinic.
A gluten-free donut is still a donut. And in many cases, food manufacturers toss in unhealthy additives, sugar, or other insalubrious ingredients to make gluten-free goods palatable.
Dr. Murray says he even tells his celiac patients to stay away from gluten-free packaged foods.
Giving Up Gluten For a Few Days Is Pointless
You’ve heard rumors that ditching gluten will give you more energy, help you sleep better at night, clear up your skin issues, and on and on. You may be tempted to cut out gluten for a week—just to see what happens.
Whatever you experience, it won’t be because you stopped eating gluten.
“It takes 3 months for your immune system to turn off inflammation and hypersensitivity that comes from food sources,” Dr. Fasano says.
So if you cut out gluten-containing foods for a day or two and feel different, something else deserves the credit, it’s not the absence of gluten.
If You’re Thinking of Giving Up Gluten, See a Doctor First
Dr. Fasano says, over and over again, that no one should go on a gluten-free diet unless they’re experiencing the symptoms listed above. Based on what we know today, the real risks far outweigh the debatable rewards.
Even if you do suffer from those symptoms, you’ll want to see a doctor before ditching gluten, he says. Your doc can check you for celiac disease, and he or she can also ensure your new diet is nutritionally complete.
Maybe most importantly, your doctor can tell you if avoiding gluten is a good idea. “You may be focusing on an intervention that has nothing to do with your underlying problem,” Dr. Fasano says.
Not only is that a waste of your time and energy, but it could allow whatever’s really wrong with you to get worse.
This article originally appeared on Men's Health US.