Gluten free diet and heart disease risk

We’re all waking up to gluten headlines again …. They always catch us by surprise, don’t they? A Daily Mail-free selection:

“Gluten free diet could raise heart attack risk”The Times.

“Gluten-free diet can do more harm than good for people without coeliac disease, scientists say”The Independent.

“Gluten-free diet should not be eaten by people who are not coeliac, say scientists”The Telegraph

“GLUTEN-FREE FEAR: Should you follow Gwyneth Paltrow and go gluten-free? Trendy diet ‘increases your risk of heart disease’”The Sun

I’m not going to put each article under the microscope this time. In fact, most of the content doesn’t seem that bad – I’ve only skim-read – though the comments are as usual dominated by the ill-informed and best avoided.

The headlines feel more contentious, to me – because they generally shout about ‘gluten free’ diets, when the research on which these news stories are pegged did NOT concern gluten free diets, but how gluten intake might be related to heart health.

Here is the study, published in the BMJ by a Harvard team. It seems to be along the same lines as the research that led to the gluten / diabetes headlines of six weeks ago, which I blogged about here.

This is the stated aim of the study, in the researchers’ own words:
To examine the association of long term intake of gluten with the development of incident coronary heart disease.

This is part of the conclusion:
Long term dietary intake of gluten was not associated with risk of coronary heart disease. However, the avoidance of gluten may result in reduced consumption of beneficial whole grains, which may affect cardiovascular risk.

This seems logical and sensible. Whole grains are known to be beneficial to health, and if your intake of our major source of them – wheat, mainly – is low, then those benefits will be reduced too, and your risk might be raised. It’s logical to assume if you eliminate them entirely, then your risk might be raised further. More research is needed, though, as the researchers point out.

Meanwhile, coeliacs deserve to be reassured. Here is, to my mind, the most important extract from the actual study:

This was not about coeliac disease; this was not about gluten-free diets; this was not about free-from foods.

A plate of quinoa, pictured earlier

Coeliacs: this was absolutely not about you.

Coeliacs: you’ll hopefully have received advice from a dietitian to ensure that you get a good intake of wholegrain foods (brown rice, quinoa etc), which are known to protect against cardiovascular disease. It’s perfectly possible to follow a heart-healthy gluten-free diet.

What this essentially is – or should be seen as – is a warning against casually throwing out gluten-containing whole grains without thought to what you’ll be replacing them with. I’m reminded of a similar warning only weeks ago about doing likewise with milk, when the National Osteoporosis Society alerted us to a future ‘ticking time bomb’ of weak bones. I saw dairy allergics and vegans upset by this, but again – this was not about them. They, in my experience, have been well advised on how to replace milk in the diet; they’re informed and have often received help from a dietitian. They, like coeliacs, generally know what they are doing.

Clean eating kids following Gwynneth Paltrow and her ilk – who make it all sound so easy, and look so aesthetically beautiful – are the members of society least likely to know what they’re doing. They are who we all should be worried about here – not coeliacs, vegans and food allergy folk who’ve been managing their free from diets successfully for years, are perfectly well and healthy, and don’t deserve to be alarmed by newspaper headlines.

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