Consumer Reports: Downsides of a gluten-free diet

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Going gluten-free is squarely in the mainstream now. (WLS)

Going gluten-free is squarely in the mainstream now. Sales of gluten-free foods have nearly tripled in recent years, as more and more people become convinced that gluten causes many health problems.

But according to Consumer Reports, just a small percentage of the population has a medical reason to avoid gluten. In fact, doing so could do more harm than good.

Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, has been blamed for causing problems like migraines, depression, and joint pain based on limited scientific evidence. Strong evidence does link gluten to digestive problems, but only in very specific cases.

For years, Brian Whalen suffered from severe stomach cramps, achiness, and lethargy. He was diagnosed with celiac disease and told to eliminate gluten from his diet. One of his first thoughts?

"'Oh my God, I can't have beer and pizza anymore.' At first it was a difficult change. So now I have to stop think, read labels, do research," Whalen said.

Consumer Reports says avoiding gluten is warranted in cases like Brian's, but it's not for the vast majority of those people who are not allergic to gluten yet still avoid it.

"Less than 7 percent of Americans have celiac disease or another condition that causes gluten sensitivity which can lead to severe digestive issues," said Consumer Reports Health Editor Catherine Roberts.

For the rest of the population, unnecessarily eliminating whole grains that contain gluten can also eliminate important vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients which protect against cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

"Another downside: gluten-free foods often have added sugar, fat, and sodium to make them more palatable," Roberts said.

And if the gluten-free foods are made with rice flour, as many are, research shows you could end up ingesting worrisome amounts of arsenic and mercury.

For those who need to be on gluten-free diets, you can still get the health benefits of whole grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth. They are gluten-free and full of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

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