GLUTEN & HEART HEALTH
Heart health does not improve by eating gluten-free foods
Gluten-free diets have soared in popularity over the past decade. Nevertheless, does the research support the conclusion that restricting gluten leads to heart health? The short answer is ‘yes’, but with a caveat: If and only if you have Coeliac Disease. I think it’s a major step forward that people who need to avoid gluten can now very easily do so, because glutenfree foods are increasingly available and food labels clearly identify foods with or without gluten. Nevertheless, the links between gluten and heart health seem to have been exaggerated by the press and in turn, these alleged risks have been oversold by food manufacturers.
WHAT IS GLUTEN AND WHY IS IT A PROBLEM?
Gluten is a protein that is found in food products that contain wheat, rye and barley. In Coeliac Disease, sufferers have an immune reaction when they eat gluten. This triggers inflammation and causes intestinal damage. Additionally, Coeliac Disease is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, but that risk decreases when a gluten-free diet is followed. For those who do have Coeliac Disease, the irritation caused by the proteins in gluten can interfere with the absorption of nutrients from the small intestine. Long-term, the problem with nutrient malabsorption can lead to heart disease, osteoporosis and in some cases, even cancer.
WHAT IS THE LINK BETWEEN GLUTEN AND HEART ATTACKS?
A long-term study that was conducted over a period of 26 years has led to an upsurge in media interest about the possible link between gluten intake and heart attacks. The investigators of this research contended that there is a possible link between an increased risk of a heart attack and restricting gluten. Nevertheless, this link was found to be unrelated to the gluten itself, but instead, it was found to be due to the reduced consumption of grains or other grain-based
products that could be associated with gluten consumption. That is, eating these products probably led to a reduction in overall fibre intake and apparently, led to an increase in overall intake of unhealthy fats and sugars. Although media reporting of this research did not explore potential explanations for the link between gluten and heart attacks, it can be safely concluded from the study that if you are contemplating reducing your gluten intake for cardiovascular health, it’s not necessarily going to improve your heart health.
SO, SHOULD I REDUCE OR LIMIT GLUTEN?
If you are looking to reduce gluten for symptomatic reasons like bloating, better digestion and better sense of well-being, then that is entirely reasonable. However unless you have been diagnosed with Coeliac Disease don’t expect a reduction in risk of heart attack. If you want to have a better understanding of your cardiovascular risk and health, then instead of cutting out the gluten, visit your local doctor and ask about what technology is available these days to look at your arteries and see what risk you truly have when it comes to coronary artery disease and heart health.
Remember: Any time you eliminate whole categories of food that you have been used to eating you run the risk of nutritional deficiencies. So if in doubt, make an appointment with your local doctor to discuss a dietary plan that best meets your own nutritional needs and take care of your heart health.
Dr Warrick Bishop is a cardiologist with special interest in cardiovascular disease prevention incorporating imaging, lipids and lifestyle. He is author of the book ‘Have You Planned Your Heart Attack?’, written for patients and doctors about how to live intentionally to reduce cardiovascular risk and save lives! Dr Bishop can be contacted via his website.