- A recent study finds no connection between gluten intake and cognitive abilities in middle-aged women without celiac disease.
- The researchers highlight that only individuals with celiac disease may experience mental advantages from a gluten-free diet.
- Despite rapid growth of the gluten-free food industry, adopting a gluten-free lifestyle without a diagnosis of celiac disease could lead to obesity and metabolic syndrome, major risk factors for heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
- Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist, supports the study findings and asserts that gluten does not harm the brain. She promotes a holistic approach to ensure brain health, which includes regular exercise, a plant-based diet full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and good hydration.
Amongst a group of almost 13,500 middle-aged women, an absence of links was discovered relating to the consumption of wheat, barley, or rye (the origins of gluten) and cognitive abilities.
Who Benefits from a Gluten-Free Diet?
The research team shed light that only those individuals diagnosed with celiac disease see advantages mentally from steering clear of gluten. Because people with celiac disease cannot properly digest gluten, it’s beneficial for them to avoid it.
Dr. Andrew Chan, the study lead author warns, “Unless a verifiable gluten sensitivity from celiac disease is present, adopting a gluten-free diet under the presumption of enhancing brain health is ill-advised.”
The Dynamic of Gluten-free Diet and Cognitive Function
The common belief circulated by popular press suggesting gluten as harmful and a potential contributor to a cognitive decline or ‘brain fog’, stands in stark contrast to the findings of this study.
Participants of the study were a part of the Nurses’ Health Study II, an examination into the risk factors for chronic diseases in women. This included dietary data and mental function assessments. Tests of cognitive abilities were inclusive of speed, focus and memory. None of the participating women were diagnosed with celiac disease.
Combining the gathered data, the research team deduced there is no impact of gluten on cognitive abilities. Dr. Chan and associates anticipate the same result among men.
Dr. Chan reiterates that a low-gluten diet does not show an enhancement in cognitive function in individuals who do not have a history of celiac disease. In his words, “The evidence is simply not there to support modifying one’s diet for this purpose.”
The Rise of the Gluten-Free Industry
Harvard University data reveals that the gluten-free food industry saw a 136% growth from 2013 to 2015. It garnered close to $12 billion in sales in 2015, with majority of customers not diagnosed with celiac disease. Leading a gluten-free lifestyle without a diagnosis of celiac disease may confer an increased risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome. These conditions elevate the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Expert’s Opinion on Gluten and Cognitive Health
Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health, reviewed the study findings and concurred with the assessment that gluten does not damage the brain. “There is no need to fear gluten as a brain toxin,” she said.
People without gluten intolerance can enjoy gluten-based foods without worrying about cognitive impairment or inflammation of the brain, she affirmed.
Heller further stressed that diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity – which are largely preventable – are the factors impacting brain health. Heller advises a holistic approach to prevent these diseases, which also aids in boosting brain health.
Her recommended lifestyle changes include: daily exercise, increased intake of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, swapping out animal protein for vegan substitutes, and staying well-hydrated.
The results of this study were originally published online on May 21 in the JAMA Network Open.
For more in-depth knowledge about gluten, kindly visit Harvard University.