In the news: Eating a gluten free diet can cause diabetes….not so fast

Health Scare

We have all seen the latest headline:


There is nothing new about this latest health scare.  Do these look familiar?

Hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats cause cancer, World Health Organization declares

Coffee causes cancer

Before we all go off the deep end, let’s use some common sense.  People see these headlines and immediately start throwing out the latest food or product that might kill them.  Please stop and think!

Popular Mechanics has published an article on their website that gives a more in-depth look at the studies that news sites and channels are basing this scare on.  And it’s not as “scary” as you might think. I will share a few excerpts, but I recommend you read the entire thing before you start eating gluten again.

People who eat low gluten diets are at a higher risk of getting type 2 diabetes, according to results presented on Thursday at the American Heart Association Meeting. It’s crucial to point out here that these researchers weren’t looking at people on gluten-free diets. The researchers were only studying associations between eating less gluten and getting diabetes. Their study size was massive—199,794 people—because they looked at data from three of the largest long-term studies in the United States: the Nurses’ Health Study, the Nurses’ Health Study II, and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. These studies have been following hundreds of thousands of medical professionals for decades, gathering data of all kinds about their lifestyles and overall health, with the intention of understanding more about disease risk. That gives scientists a plethora of data to figure out what lifestyle factors make you more likely to get particular diseases.

When these studies began in the ‘70s and ‘80s, though, gluten-free diets weren’t a thing. They were a thing if you were among the less than one percent of people with celiac disease, but beyond that most people had never even heard the word “gluten.” So instead the researchers had to estimate gluten intake based on the study participants’ answers to questionnaires about their diet, and then look to see how many people who ate low or high gluten diets ended up with type 2 diabetes. To be clear: there was no data in this study about people who totally abstained from gluten. None. This study was not about gluten free diets, it was about low versus high gluten consumption as estimated from surveys taken mostly at a time when gluten free food options were few and far between. And most importantly, it cannot say anything about gluten free diets because it did not study anyone actually on a gluten free diet. It can say that eating less gluten is unlikely to decrease your risk of type 2 diabetes, but that’s pretty much it.

If what these researchers found has more to do with fiber intake, then at least this negative outcome of eating less gluten could be mitigated by eating foods high in fiber. There are plenty of gluten-free grains that have high fiber, like quinoa, sorghum, teff, buckwheat, and oats (especially steel-cut ones). Swapping in those grains could help compensate for a lack of wheat, barley, and rye, the three grains people avoiding gluten cannot touch.

But there are other potential problems with eating gluten-free if you’re otherwise healthy, many of which come back to the way we make gluten-free substitutes for common bread products.

So basically what the article is saying is that they did not study people on a gluten-free diet because there was no such thing at the time.  What they might have been studying was the lack of fiber intake.  That to me is a valid point.

If you are healthy and do not have either gluten intolerance or celiac disease, there is no reason to stop eating gluten, even if Gwyneth Paltrow told you to.  You are most likely going to see long-term changes in your health.   Do not believe celebrity health nuts or diet gurus.  Do your own research, and don’t believe every health scare at face value.

Why someone would voluntarily stop eating gluten, or even worse, stop feeding it to a child, unless that child has celiac disease or allergies, is beyond me.  It is not a healthy lifestyle and it is not fun either.

Because the goal is often to try to create something as close to the gluten-y counterpart as possible, companies use things like processed rice flours, potato and tapioca starch, or other refined grains that can work together to create something resembling white sandwich bread or dinner rolls. Those refined ingredients tend to lack not just fiber, but also iron, folate, vitamin B12, calcium, and other essential vitamins and minerals. Plus, as one 2010 study found that healthy people who went on gluten-free diets had significant changes in their microbiome. Wheat provides about 70 percent of two types of carbohydrates that promote growth of certain helpful kinds of gut bacteria—carbs that many other grains don’t have. And again, if you’re smart about your diet, you can easily eat a gluten-free diet that’s also replete with the right nutrients. Substitute in high fiber, nutritious grains to compensate for the lack of vitamins and fiber. Eat more bananas, onions, and garlic to get those bacteria-promoting carbohydrates. But don’t just change your diet without thinking about it.

It is not that easy to find bread or baked goods that are not made with rice flour.  Rice flour is pretty short on nutrients.  I find that bread made with other more nutritious flours often either contain nut flours, honey or agave, all of which I have to avoid.

I suppose I could bake my own bread.  I certainly have the time.  I do make most of my baked goods from scratch.  Maybe that is something I need to look into.

In conclusion, I would like to mention a very different take on the eating of bacon and health scares in general. Recently, several people over 100 years old were interviewed and asked what was the secret to their longevity.  One lady said she ate bacon every day of her life.  I rest my case.

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