Is Gluten Really Bad For You?

In college I bought el cheapo microwavable burritos by the case. Now I sometimes (and by sometimes I mean nearly every week) head to the Whole Foods freezer aisle and pile an Amy's Organic bean burrito or three into my cart. Unlike my college-borne afflictions with soda, bad pot, and Old Style Light, I can't seem to kick this horrible burrito habit. Also unlike college, when my cravings for a microwavable meal strike I'm now confronted with a choice: gluten-free or not.

In an attempt to mitigate the fattening effects of these gut bombs I always go for gluten-free. Even though I don't have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, I thought, like many of us gullibly do, that ditching gluten is not only better for the belly, but somehow healthier overall—but is it?

First, a quick gluten cheat sheet. Gluten is a tricky protein found in kernels of wheat, rye, barley, and, to a lesser degree, oats. When it's milled to a powder (a.k.a. flour) gluten gives texture to pasta and chewy density to bread. When it's turned into mash it helps make whiskey, too.

It goes without saying that the one percent of the population with celiac disease, an ailment that prevents the body from absorbing certain nutrients when gluten is ingested, shouldn't touch the stuff. The same goes for the additional six percent of folks with legitimate gluten sensitivity. No more whiskey, my friends; it's a vodka life for you.

But according to a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, there's no hard evidence that the rest of us fare better sans gluten. In fact, it notes several studies showing weight gain as a common side effect of going gluten free. That's because most gluten-free products use starches like potato, rice, and tapioca—substitutes that can pack way more carbs and calories than their glutinous counterparts.

The other potential drawback when ditching gluten is you can lose out on a lot of über-healthy whole grains, which, when part of a low-cal diet (that's light on the aforementioned burritos) can not only boost your heart health but can actually help you lose weight.

—Mike Dawson is a magazine writer and editor and a regular contributor to Details.

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