Dr. Andrea Middleton - Is It Bad For You? Approved by Dr. Andrea Middleton

Is Wheat Gluten Bad For You?

Also Known As: Gluten, Seitan



Short answer

For most, wheat gluten is safe and a good source of protein, fiber, and other nutrients. However, individuals with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergies must avoid it due to adverse health effects. Always consult health professionals before eliminating gluten from your diet.



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Long answer

Defining Wheat Gluten and Its Role in Health

Wheat gluten, also known as seitan when used as a meat substitute, is a protein composite found in wheat and related grains. It's what gives bread its chewy texture and elasticity during the baking process. Gluten is composed of two main proteins: gliadin and glutenin, which, in the presence of water, form a network that traps air bubbles and allows dough to rise.

From a health standpoint, gluten plays a dual role, acting both as a source of nutrition and, for some individuals, a potential trigger for adverse health conditions. For most people, gluten is a source of protein that can be safely included in the diet without any concern. It's particularly valuable in vegan and vegetarian diets as a hearty source of plant-based protein. Additionally, whole wheat products that contain gluten are rich in dietary fiber, B vitamins, and various minerals.

  • Protein Content: Gluten provides a source of plant-based protein, which is important for muscle maintenance and repair.
  • Dietary Fiber: Whole wheat products containing gluten contribute to daily fiber intake, essential for digestive health.
  • B vitamins and Minerals: Such products are often fortified or naturally rich in nutrients like iron, calcium, and B vitamins, which support energy metabolism and bone health.

For a subgroup of the population, including individuals with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), or wheat allergies, gluten can cause serious health issues. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. It's estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, whose symptoms mimic those of celiac disease without the intestinal damage, is less clearly defined but also necessitates a gluten-free diet for affected individuals.

Researchers continue to explore the role of gluten in the diet and its impact on health beyond these conditions. Some studies suggest that a gluten-free diet may benefit certain populations beyond those with gluten-related disorders, possibly due to reductions in processed foods and an increased intake of fruits and vegetables. However, the evidence is not conclusive, and nutritionists often emphasize the importance of a balanced diet that incorporates a variety of whole grains for those without gluten-related diseases.

The role of wheat gluten in health is hence two-fold and highly individual. Understanding one's own body's reaction to gluten is key to integrating it healthfully in one's diet. It's advisable to consult with healthcare providers and dietitians to determine if gluten should be a concern for you personally. Those suspected of having a gluten-related disorder should not eliminate gluten from their diet before testing, as this may lead to inaccurate test results.

Population Consideration
General public Gluten is generally safe; valuable source of protein and nutrients.
Celiac disease Must completely avoid gluten to prevent small intestine damage.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity Gluten may cause symptoms similar to celiac disease; Gluten-free diet may be beneficial.
Wheat allergy Gluten and other wheat proteins may trigger allergic reactions; avoidance necessary.

Given the complexities of how gluten interacts with different individuals, it is imperative that scientific research continues to shine light on this multifaceted component of our diet. Personal health histories and nutritional needs should guide consumption patterns, while ongoing scientific studies and expert dietary guidelines inform our broader understanding of wheat gluten's role in health.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity vs. Celiac Disease

When considering the effects of wheat gluten on health, it's crucial to distinguish between Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) and Celiac Disease (CD). The two conditions, while sharing some symptoms, are fundamentally different in their effect on the body and the severity of the consequences they entail.

Celiac Disease (CD): This is a well-documented autoimmune disorder, where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. Affecting about 1% of the population, CD can have serious implications if not properly managed. It is diagnosed through a combination of blood tests and an intestinal biopsy, which confirm the presence of an immune response to gluten that damages intestinal tissue. The only treatment for CD is a strict, lifelong gluten-free diet.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS): NCGS is a term used to describe individuals who experience a range of symptoms similar to those of CD but lack the same antibodies and intestinal damage seen in celiac disease. NCGS has a prevalence rate higher than CD, although it’s hard to estimate due to the overlap of symptoms with other digestive disorders. Unlike CD, there are no definitive diagnostic tests for NCGS. Patients are typically diagnosed with NCGS only after celiac disease and wheat allergies have been ruled out. The symptoms of NCGS can improve with a gluten-free diet, but the sensitivity is not considered to be an autoimmune or allergic response.

Understanding whether one has CD or NCGS is crucial for several reasons:

  • Long-term health risks: Untreated CD can lead to various complications, including osteoporosis, infertility, neurological conditions, and in rare cases, cancer. NCGS, while uncomfortable, does not appear to increase the risk of these conditions.
  • Dietary management: Both CD and NCGS individuals may benefit from a gluten-free diet; however, those with CD must adhere to a more stringent avoidance of gluten due to the risk of intestinal damage and other health complications.
  • Diagnostic approach: CD can be confirmed through specific tests, while NCGS is diagnosed by excluding other conditions, including CD and wheat allergies.

The distinction between CD and NCGS, in terms of epidemiology, pathogenesis, and clinical manifestations, is critical. In recent studies, such as one published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, NCGS has been recognized as a distinct clinical entity that overlaps with other gastrointestinal disorders, adding complexity to diagnosis and management practices.

It's worth noting that self-diagnosis and treatment with a gluten-free diet without professional guidance can often lead to nutritional deficits and a delay in identifying the correct disorder, whether it's CD, NCGS, or another digestive issue. It's always recommended to seek medical advice if experiencing symptoms related to gluten intake.

The Effects of Gluten on Gut Health and Digestion

Understanding the interaction between gluten and the digestive system is crucial for evaluating its potential impact on overall health. Gluten—a composite of proteins found in wheat and other grains—is known to affect individuals differently depending on a variety of factors, including genetic predisposition and gut health.

For those with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder, the ingestion of gluten triggers an immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine. This damage impairs nutrient absorption and can lead to various gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, pain, and diarrhea, as well as long-term health complications. According to a review by the Celiac Disease Foundation, approximately 1% of the population is affected by celiac disease, although underdiagnosis may suggest that the actual numbers could be higher.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is another condition that evidences the complexities of gluten’s effects on digestion. Unlike celiac disease, gluten sensitivity doesn’t cause the same intestinal damage, but it can entail similar symptoms like bloating, gas, and abdominal pain. A study published in Gastroenterology suggests that gluten can cause gastrointestinal symptoms even in the absence of celiac disease.

On the other hand, for the majority of individuals without gluten-related disorders, gluten does not typically induce gut health issues and is considered safe to consume. In fact, whole grains that contain gluten, such as wheat, rye, and barley, are part of a balanced diet and offer dietary fiber which is beneficial for digestion. A study in the British Medical Journal indicated that dietary fiber from whole grains is associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases.

Gluten's effect on the gut microbiome is an area of active research. The gut microbiome, which plays a key role in health, could be modified by gluten consumption, potentially impairing or promoting gut health depending on the individual's unique microbiota composition. A paper in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry reviewed the impacts of gluten on the microbiome and suggested that while gluten can alter the composition of the gut microbiota, the implications of these changes on overall health are still not clearly understood.

  • For individuals with celiac disease, gluten consumption is harmful and damages the intestinal lining.
  • Non-celiac gluten sensitivity can present similar symptoms to celiac disease, though without the intestinal damage.
  • Most people without a gluten-related disorder can consume gluten without adverse effects on gut health.
  • Whole grains containing gluten are important for dietary fiber intake, potentially reducing the risk of various chronic diseases.
  • The relationship between gluten and the gut microbiome is complex and varies amongst individuals.
  • Further research is needed to understand the long-term impact of gluten on gut health in the general population.

It is important to note that any changes in diet, especially the elimination of entire food groups like gluten-containing grains, should be done under the guidance of a qualified healthcare professional or registered dietitian to ensure nutritional adequacy and to avoid unintended health outcomes.

Wheat Gluten's Impact on Inflammation and Autoimmunity

When considering the health effects of wheat gluten, its potential role in inflammation and autoimmune conditions is a critical aspect. Inflammation is the body's natural response to protect against infection and injury but can become harmful when chronic. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's own tissues, and dietary factors, including gluten, may influence this process.

For the general population, gluten is not inherently inflammatory. However, in certain individuals with specific health conditions, gluten consumption can trigger an inflammatory response. The most well-known condition is celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder where gluten consumption leads to inflammation in the small intestine. According to a 2016 systemic review published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, individuals with celiac disease experience a pro-inflammatory state that subsides when gluten is removed from the diet.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is another condition that may involve inflammation related to gluten ingestion. NCGS presents with symptoms similar to celiac disease but lacks the same autoimmune intestinal damage. A study published in BMC Medicine suggests that NCGS can be associated with systemic immune activation and gastrointestinal-specific inflammation.

Beyond celiac disease and NCGS, research indicates a potential link between gluten and other autoimmune conditions. A significant example is the proposed connection between gluten intake and Hashimoto's thyroiditis, an autoimmune thyroid disorder. The Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology published a study that showed a higher prevalence of celiac disease among people with Hashimoto's thyroiditis, hinting at a possible link between gluten-induced inflammation and thyroid autoimmunity, although further research is needed to confirm this association.

It's important to note that the response to gluten can be highly individualized. Many people tolerate gluten without any issues, while others may experience a range of inflammatory responses. For those with autoimmune conditions, the interplay between diet and disease can be complex and warrants close attention. Individuals experiencing symptoms potentially related to gluten should consult with a healthcare professional for personalized advice and potential testing for celiac disease or other gluten-related disorders.

Overall, while gluten can contribute to inflammation and autoimmunity in susceptible individuals, the majority of people will not experience these adverse effects. Eliminating gluten unnecessarily can lead to a lack of nutrients that are typically abundant in whole-grain wheat products, such as B vitamins, fiber, and iron. Therefore, the decision to eliminate gluten should be carefully considered and, when possible, made with the guidance of a health professional.

Nutritional Considerations of a Gluten-Free Diet

The decision to follow a gluten-free diet, whether due to celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or personal choice, has implications for your nutritional intake. This dietary change can affect your consumption of various nutrients, both positively and negatively. Understanding these nutritional considerations is essential for maintaining a balanced and healthful diet while avoiding gluten.

Fiber Intake:

Whole wheat and other gluten-containing grains are significant sources of dietary fiber. When eliminating gluten, it's common to inadvertently reduce fiber intake since many gluten-free products are made from refined flours with lower fiber content. To ensure adequate fiber, include naturally gluten-free, fiber-rich options such as:

  • Legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas)
  • Whole rice
  • Quinoa
  • Fruits and vegetables

B-vitamin Levels:

Many gluten-containing products, such as bread and cereals, are fortified with B vitamins. Switching to gluten-free often means missing out on this fortification. It’s essential to source these vitamins elsewhere, as they play crucial roles in energy metabolism and nervous system function. Gluten-free sources of B vitamins include:

  • Leafy greens (spinach, kale)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Eggs and dairy products
  • Meat and fish

Iron Absorption:

Celiac disease can damage the small intestine, impairing nutrient absorption, including iron. A gluten-free diet can help heal the intestine, improving iron absorption over time. However, iron deficiency may still occur if the diet lacks iron-rich foods. To combat this, include gluten-free sources of iron such as:

  • Red meats
  • Poultry and fish
  • Lentils and beans
  • Pumpkin seeds

Calcium and Vitamin D:

Osteoporosis and low bone density are concerns for individuals with gluten-related disorders. Gluten-free diets should include calcium and vitamin D-rich foods to support bone health. Good sources include:

  • Dairy products or fortified non-dairy alternatives
  • Green leafy vegetables like broccoli and kale
  • Fish with edible bones, such as sardines and salmon

It is advisable to engage with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian who can help tailor a gluten-free diet to your specific needs, ensuring that nutritional deficiencies do not develop. Regular check-ups and possibly supplementation may be recommended as part of your ongoing health management. Additionally, being mindful of cross-contamination and ingredient labels is essential to maintain a strict gluten-free diet, as even trace amounts of gluten can trigger symptoms in sensitive individuals.

Recent studies also suggest that naturally gluten-free pseudo grains like teff, amaranth, and buckwheat can be beneficial in such diets due to their high nutritional value and should be considered as part of a balanced, gluten-free diet. Their inclusion can help alleviate potential deficiencies commonly associated with gluten-free diets.

Researchers continue to investigate the impacts of gluten-free diets on overall health. A study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics highlights the need for improved nutritional quality of gluten-free products, particularly in relation to their protein, fiber, and vitamin content, to ensure that individuals on such diets receive a balanced nutritional profile.

The Balance: When to Choose or Avoid Wheat Gluten

Wheat gluten's impact on health can be viewed through a balanced lens that considers various dietary needs and personal health profiles. This vital protein in wheat products is safe and beneficial for many, yet it presents clear issues for others. Understanding when to incorporate wheat gluten into your diet or when to steer clear is crucial in making informed choices.

When to Choose Wheat Gluten:

  • Nutritional Profile: Wheat gluten contains protein, which is essential for muscle maintenance and repair. It also contains minerals such as iron, calcium, and phosphorus.
  • Physical Activities: Athletes and individuals with high protein requirements may benefit from the protein content in wheat gluten.
  • Cost and Sustainability: As a plant-based protein source, wheat gluten is often more affordable and sustainable than animal proteins.
  • Dietary Variations: Those who do not have celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or a wheat allergy can safely consume wheat gluten, which provides a variety of textures and flavors in foods.
  • Baking Qualities: Wheat gluten can help bread and other baked goods retain their shape and provide a chewy texture that is often desirable.

When to Avoid Wheat Gluten:

  • Celiac Disease: Individuals with celiac disease should strictly avoid wheat gluten as it triggers a harmful autoimmune response that damages the small intestine.
  • Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity: Some people experience similar symptoms to celiac disease without the autoimmune component and may benefit from a gluten-free diet.
  • Wheat Allergy: Those with a wheat allergy need to avoid wheat gluten to prevent allergic reactions, which can be serious and sometimes life-threatening.
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): Research suggests that a low-FODMAP diet, which often includes limiting wheat products, may relieve IBS symptoms.
  • Personal Digestive Health: Some individuals report improved digestive comfort when reducing or eliminating gluten from their diet.
  • Type of Diet: If you are following certain diets such as Paleo or ketogenic, wheat gluten should be excluded as it does not align with the guidelines of these dietary practices.

Whether to consume wheat gluten also intersects with broader dietary patterns. For instance, whole wheat products that contain gluten can be part of a balanced, high-fiber diet. However, if gluten-containing foods displace more nutrient-dense options in your diet, reassessing your gluten intake could be beneficial.

It is essential to consult with a healthcare professional before making any significant changes to your diet, especially if you suspect an issue with wheat gluten. Registered dietitians and gastroenterologists can offer guidance based on personal health needs and dietary goals.

Frequently asked questions

A gluten-free diet does not automatically lead to weight loss. If replacing gluten-containing foods with lower-calorie, nutrient-dense options, some individuals may lose weight. However, gluten-free products can sometimes be higher in calories and sugar than their gluten-containing counterparts. Weight loss on a gluten-free diet should be managed with mindful eating and a focus on overall dietary balance.

To maintain nutritional adequacy on a gluten-free diet, focus on incorporating a variety of naturally gluten-free foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains (like quinoa, millet, and buckwheat). Supplementing with vitamins and minerals may also be necessary, particularly B vitamins and iron. Consulting with a registered dietitian can help structure a balanced diet that meets all nutritional needs.

While not necessary for all individuals with IBS, some people find that a low-FODMAP diet, which includes limitations on certain gluten-containing foods, can help to alleviate their symptoms. It’s important to consult a healthcare provider for a personalized approach, as gluten is not the sole trigger for IBS symptoms.

Current research suggests a potential link between gluten and autoimmune conditions other than celiac disease, such as Hashimoto's thyroiditis. However, a direct cause-and-effect relationship has not been conclusively established, and more research is needed to understand fully the role gluten may play in these diseases.

Ask a question about Wheat Gluten and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • bloating
  • gas
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea

Possible long-term side effects

  • small intestine damage (celiac disease)
  • nutritional deficiencies
  • osteoporosis
  • infertility
  • neurological conditions
  • increased risk of cancer (celiac disease)

Ingredients to be aware of

  • gliadin
  • glutenin


  • source of plant-based protein
  • dietary fiber for digestive health
  • rich in b vitamins and minerals like iron and calcium
  • may reduce risk of chronic diseases (whole grains)

Healthier alternatives

  • legumes
  • whole rice
  • quinoa
  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • eggs
  • dairy products
  • meat
  • fish
  • pseudo grains like teff, amaranth, and buckwheat

Our Wellness Pick (what is this?)

Bob's Red Mill Flour

  • Gluten-free baking
  • Versatile all-purpose
  • 22-ounce pack of 4
  • Non-GMO
Learn More!

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 12-14-2023

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 12-14-2023

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