Gluten-free diets could increase heart attack risk for non-celiacs, study finds

Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and other processed foods made with grains.

Credit: Sean Gallup

Credit: Sean Gallup

Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and other processed foods made with grains.

Gluten-free diets have become one of the nation’s most popular diet trends, but for those who don’t actually have celiac disease, the diet could increase the risk for heart attacks.

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The findings come from a new study published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal spearheaded by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.

Scientists examined more than 100,000 men and women (all U.S. health professionals without history of heart disease) who completed a detailed food questionnaire beginning in 1986 and updated it every four years until 2010.

The questionnaire offered scientists a look at participants’ gluten intake, which the researchers used to divide them into five groups from low gluten intake to high gluten intake to ultimately calculate how likely they were to develop heart disease over approximately 26 years.

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The one limitation of the study is that it couldn’t account for non-celiacs with a very low-gluten or gluten-free diet.

The results revealed those in the high intake group had similar rates of heart disease than people in the low intake group, concluding that those who avoid eating gluten by choice and not due to a condition like celiac disease aren't actually helping their cardiovascular systems.

In fact, researchers said, gluten-free diets may end up causing harm.

This is because people with restricted gluten intake often eat a diet high in refined grains, but low in fiber-rich whole grains, which are tied to lower heart risk.

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"We can't say with certainty that this is a cause-and-effect association," study investigator Andrew Chan told HealthDay. But, he said, "For the vast majority of people who can tolerate it, restricting gluten to improve your overall health is likely not to be a beneficial strategy," and based on the data, consuming a low-gluten diet specifically for heart health doesn't appear warranted, either, he said.

Another study researcher, Peter H.R. Green, said anytime someone eliminates entire categories of food they’ve been used to eating, there’s a risk of nutritional deficiencies.

"Unless people are very careful, a gluten-free diet can lack vitamins, minerals and fiber,” he said.

Read the full study here.