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Study: Gluten-free diet unhealthy for people without celiac disease

Parents putting their children on a gluten-free diet, because they think it's healthier or for "no reason at all," could be endangering their health.

By Stephen Feller
Study: Gluten-free diet unhealthy for people without celiac disease
People without celiac disease who opt for a gluten-free diet because they think it's healthier are wrong, say researchers in a new study. Photo by Lolostock/Shutterstock

NEW YORK, May 16 (UPI) -- For people with celiac disease, avoiding food with gluten -- a protein in wheat, barley and rye -- is the only method of treatment. As awareness of the condition has grown, more people have been diagnosed, but more people also are following a gluten-free diet for "no reason."

Some parents with celiac disease put their children on a gluten-free diet with them, because they think it may prevent the disease and is likely healthier anyway, assumptions researchers in a recent study say is wrong.

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Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation in the inner lining of the small intestine when a person ingests gluten, preventing it from absorbing nutrients.

Celiac disease runs in families, and 50 percent of people who have it have another family member with the condition, with about 1 in 41 Americans having it, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

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The uptick in the number of people diagnosed with celiac disease is a product of increased awareness and screening, though researchers say the increase does not explain the explosion of the gluten-free food industry. Market research has shown, however, that most of these foods are purchased by people without the disease, researchers report.

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A survey in 2015 of 1,500 adults who adopted gluten-free diets showed most did not have celiac disease or any explanation for doing so -- less than 8 percent of people in the survey had celiac disease.

Among others in the survey, 10 percent said they had a family member who is sensitive to gluten, 19 percent said "digestive health," 26 percent called it a "healthier option" and 35 percent said they had "no reason" but switched anyway.

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Researchers in the new study report that even for people with the disease, they often start their children on the diet, which is not healthy for people who can digest the protein and may create other health concerns, from increasing risk for obesity to overall lack of nutrition.

"Although some children experience relief of symptoms, signifying that CD testing is warranted, many are asymptomatic from the start," Dr. Norelle Reilly, a researcher in pediatric gastroenterology at Columbia University Medical Center, wrote in the study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics. "The health and social consequences worthy of consideration in advance of starting a child on a GFD are not described adequately online or in books promoting an empiric GFD trial."

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For the study, Reilly reviewed nearly 60 studies about celiac disease, gluten, gluten-free diets and other related areas, finding, most notably, the gluten-free diet has not been shown to have health benefits for those without celiac disease.

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Doctors closely monitor the diets of people with celiac disease, and for people without it, the higher fat and sugar content in gluten-free packaged foods -- higher fat and caloric intake are seen in people with the disease -- can increase risk for obesity, diabetes and deficiencies of essential vitamins.

Some people also think gluten is toxic, for which Reilly also found there is no evidence.

And while preemptively putting a child on a gluten-free diet without a doctor's recommendation does not alter risk and can endanger health, Reilly also notes nonceliac gluten and wheat allergies, both of which are rare, also are treated with gluten-free diets.

"Health care providers may not be able to end the gluten-free diet fad, but can certainly begin to play a larger role in educating patients, excluding celiac disease, and preventing nutritional deficiencies in those choosing to stay gluten-free," Reilly writes in the study.

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