Trying a Gluten-Free Diet? The Good (and Possibly Bad) Things to Expect

Dietary fads come and go. Some require you to eat meat and vegetables. Others have you ditching animal products all together. But if there’s one that’s become increasingly popular over the past several years, it’s the gluten-free diet. Gluten, in case you didn’t know, is a protein found in wheat. While some people have gluten sensitivities or allergies, the vast majority of us can ingest it with no problem.

Here are five of the potential positives and negatives of a gluten-free diet.

1. It can help with certain health conditions

close-up on a man's stomach as he rubs it

If you don’t have a gluten sensitivity or IBS, you might as well stick with it. | iStock.com

This, truly, is at the heart of the gluten-free diet. The real reason the diet became popular is because there are people out there with gluten allergies and sensitivities. These people make up a small portion of the population, research finds. So, these people avoid gluten for health reasons. A gluten-free diet is often the only choice for people with celiac disease or wheat allergies, but it can also help people with other issues, like irritable bowel syndrome.

2. Reductions in inflammation

A man with arthritis who is experiencing pain from swollen joints because of inflammation

A man with arthritis who is experiencing pain from swollen joints because of inflammation. | iStock.com

Diets that are free of gluten have also been shown to help with inflammation. For that reason, if you’re someone who has struggled with conditions like arthritis, a gluten-free diet may be worth checking out. The inflammation some people experience may actually be a sign of a gluten sensitivity and is your body’s natural response. So, if you go gluten-free, you might find unexpected benefits in the form of less inflammation.

3. Behavioral improvements

young man using laptop

Who knew a gluten-free diet could make you happier? | iStock.com/g-stockstudio

Researchers are still digging into it, but some results indicate there does appear to be a relationship between gluten intake and behavioral issues with certain individuals. This is often brought up when discussing gluten-free diets and children, but it also applies to adults. Again, this is an area that is still being investigated. And it may be as simple as avoiding certain things (sugars, etc.) that are in gluten-heavy foods.

4. Easier digestion

A man happy with his digestive achievements thanks to a gluten-free diet

A man happy with his digestive achievements thanks to a gluten-free diet. | iStock.com

We mentioned irritable bowel syndrome — there’s a reason for that. Going gluten-free typically means you’re taking it easy on your digestive system. Foods containing lots of gluten are often hard to digest, Harvard Health Publications reports, and can give you stomach aches. Shifting your diet to other foods — fruits, veggies, proteins, etc. — will help get more fiber into your body and aid with digestion.

5. You’ll end up eating leaner

Lean foods, free of gluten

Lean foods such as fish are free of gluten. | iStock.com/klenova

Leapfrogging right into the next point: Dropping wheat proteins from your diet should help you eat leaner. Taking pasta, bread, and other gluten-heavy foods out of the equation should reduce your calorie and carb intake significantly. Replace those foods with lean meats and produce, and you should see some real benefits.

Now, here are five potential negative effects of gluten-free diets.

1. Potential mercury poisoning…

A man suffering with a mystery illness

Completely ditching gluten might actually make you sick. | iStock.com/IPGGutenbergUKLtd

Not to start off with some absolutely terrifying points, but studies are coming out that show your diet can actively poison you. When it comes to gluten-free eating plans, there’s actually a risk of mercury poisoning, of all things. A recent study made the association between these diets and heavy-metal poisoning, with researchers thinking it may be due to an increased intake of rice flour.

2. … And arsenic poisoning

Another man with a strange affliction

What the hell is arsenic poisoning? | iStock.com

That same study didn’t just point to increased mercury levels among gluten-free dieters. It also showed the dieters had elevated levels of arsenic in their blood. And again, scientists’ best guess at this point is that it’s tied to rice flour being used in lieu of wheat. Rice soaks up heavy metals from the ground and water as it grows. It can concentrate them and lead to elevated levels when consumed in high quantities.

Again, this is just the best guess at this point in time. What we know for sure is that the relationship between these diets and elevated levels of heavy metals exists.

3. You could throw your diet off-balance

Foods comprising a well-balanced diet

Taking out gluten could throw your diet off balance. | iStock.com/iprachenko

On a less scary level, removing wheat products from your diet may have a negative impact in the sense that it can throw your eating habits out of balance. You can avoid this, of course, if you pay enough attention. But foods we eat that contain wheat also contain other vital nutrients. You may be inadvertently skipping out on fiber and whole grains that are beneficial by dodging pasta and baked goods.

4. It may weaken your immune system

A weak, tired man

It doesn’t seem so worth it if it’s just going to make you sick. | iStock.com

When you’re missing out on vital nutrients, you can also be weakening your immune system. Again, this is tied to malnutrition associated with an altered diet. And again, if you watch your diet carefully, you’ll probably be okay. But if you go all-in on the gluten-free fad, you may inadvertently weaken your body’s natural defense systems.

5. It’s hard to remain committed

Doughnuts from Dunkin" Donuts, French fries from McDonald's and fried chicken from Kentucky Fried Chicken

If you commit to a gluten-free diet be ready for the obstacles. | Robert Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images

While not a physical issue, this is something that makes the gluten-free lifestyle difficult: It’s hard to stay disciplined (especially if there’s no medical reason to stay clear of wheat), and it can get very expensive. Scientific studies have shown that almost all gluten-free versions of foods are more expensive than their gluten-laden counterparts. Obviously, that may not be true in every single instance. But it’s a tougher diet to maintain. Know that going in.