Roughly one percent of Americans suffer from celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder that triggers inflammation and intestinal issues. The solution for these individuals is to follow a gluten-free diet that avoids consumption of the protein found in whole grains.
But over the past few years, those without celiac disease have opted to go gluten-free for an array of reasons, from weight loss to general health benefits. In the United States, 0.52 percent of the population without celiac disease maintained a gluten-free diet from 2009 to 2010, according to a study. But that rate tripled by 2013 to 2014, when 1.69 percent of the celiac-free population adopted a gluten-free lifestyle.
Now, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School have found a troubling association between those who go gluten-free without celiac disease and their heart health.
Research Shows Whole Grains Are Good for Your Heart
The researchers gathered and analyzed data from over 100,000 subjects (64,714 women and 45,303 men) with no history of coronary heart disease. They followed the participants from 1986 to 2010, asking them to fill out food questionnaires every four years. Upon analysis based on gluten intake, there was no "significant" link between gluten consumption and the risk of heart disease.
But since people with restricted gluten intake often have a diet rich in refined grains, instead of whole grains, the team looked at the data from the perspective of refined grains. Here, the findings were different.
"It appeared that those individuals who consumed the lowest levels of dietary gluten had a 15 percent higher risk of heart disease," study leader Andrew Chan, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, tells CBS.
As such, the study concludes that going gluten-free can leave a person at risk of heart problems, since gluten-containing whole grains — like barley, wheat, and rye — come with cardiovascular health perks.
"The avoidance of gluten may result in reduced consumption of beneficial whole grains, which may affect cardiovascular risk," the study authors write in BMJ. "The promotion of gluten-free diets among people without celiac disease should not be encouraged.
The Limitations (and Loop Holes) to the Study
That said, there are limitations to this study. Chan admits the cause and effect of the findings cannot be proven from this study alone, so further research is required. As for those who want to have a gluten-free diet without having to worry about their heart health, Chan advises making sure your diet is rich in fiber. Two gluten-free fiber-rich items are oats and brown rice.