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Study shows that limiting whole grains as part of a reduced-gluten diet could actually increase heart attack risk in people without coeliac disease.

A study of more than 100,000 men and women suggests that limiting whole grains as part of a low-gluten diet may increase the risk of heart disease in people who do not have coeliac disease. The study, led by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, was published in the BMJ.

“Gluten is clearly harmful for people with celiac disease,” said lead author Benjamin Lebwohl, MD, MS. “But popular diet books, based on anecdotal and circumstantial evidence, have pushed the notion that a low-gluten diet is healthy for everyone. Our findings show that gluten restriction has no benefit, at least in terms of heart health, for people without coeliac disease. In fact, it may cause some harm if they follow a low-gluten diet that is particularly low in whole grains, because those grains appear to have a protective effect against heart disease.”

Coeliac disease is estimated to affect about 1 in 100 people. Another segment of the population has a condition called non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, in which gluten triggers some symptoms in the absence of coeliac disease. However, estimates of the number of people with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity vary widely. “Despite the relatively low prevalence of coeliac disease and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, surveys suggest that about one-third of people are trying to cut down on gluten,” says Dr. Lebwohl. “This certainly benefits companies that sell gluten-free products. But does it benefit the public? That is the question we wanted to answer.”