Gluten-free diet does not benefit heart health if you don’t have celiac disease

May 5, 2017

Gluten-free diet does not benefit heart health if you don’t have celiac disease

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Lack of whole grains may actually increase risk of heart disease

healthy heart

By Amy Ratner, Medical and Science News Analyst

If you have celiac disease, you might be more likely than most people to question the health value of the gluten-free diet for those who don’t. You are probably aware of the potential nutritional shortcomings of the diet because it can lack in heart-healthy whole grains.

New research from the Columbia University Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital backs up these points of view.

In a study of more than 100,000 men and women, researchers found that gluten in the diet is not associated with heart disease risk in those who don’t have celiac disease. At the same time, limiting whole grains as part of a low-gluten diet may increase their risk of heart disease, the study published online in the BMJjournal, suggests.

“Gluten is clearly harmful for people with celiac disease,” lead study author Benjamin Lebwohl, MD, director of clinical research in the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, said in a press release. “But popular diet books, based on anecdotal and circumstantial evidence, have pushed the notion that a low-gluten diet is healthy for everyone.”

Dr. Lebwohl said the study showed gluten restriction has no benefit, at least in terms of heart health, for people without celiac disease, and it may cause some harm because whole grains, many of which are restricted on the gluten-free diet, appear to have a protective effect against heart disease.

Dr. Lebwohl and his colleagues analyzed diet and coronary heart disease data on 65,000 women in the Nurses Health Study, one of the largest prospective investigations into the risk factors for major chronic diseases in women, and 45,000 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, a similar investigation that collects health data on men. Anyone who had been diagnosed with celiac disease was excluded. Participant filled out detailed diet questionnaires every four years, from 1986 to 2010, and were divided into five levels based on their estimated gluten consumption.

No association between gluten intake and risk of coronary heart disease, defined as fatal or non-fatal heart attacks, was found.

“Even those with the lowest amount of gluten consumption experienced the same rate of heart disease as those who were consuming the most gluten,” senior investigator Andrew Chan, M.D., chief of the clinical and translational epidemiology unit in the Massachusetts General Hospital Division of Gastroenterology, said in the press release. “Based on our data, recommending a low-gluten diet solely for the promotion of hearth health does not appear warranted.”

The researchers plan additional studies to look at the effect of gluten intake on other health outcomes, including cancer and autoimmune disease.

“Despite the relatively low prevalence of celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, surveys suggest that about one-third of Americans are trying to cut down on gluten,” Dr. Lebwohl said. “This certainly benefits companies that sell gluten-free products. But does it benefit the public? That is the question we wanted to answer.”

You can read the study here.

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