Published in the journal Epidemiology, a study concludes that a gluten-free diet may actually pose serious health risks. According to study co-author Maria Argos, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and her colleagues found that those who go gluten-free may increase exposure to arsenic and mercury.
Essentially, gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. For those that don’t eat gluten, rice flour is a viable alternative and is used in many gluten-free products. In many cases, people can’t eat gluten because they have autoimmune diseases like celiac disease. However, some people avoid gluten or limit their intake even if they’re not sensitive to it.
So whether they have to or not, people are increasingly going gluten-free. As a result, more are using rice flour as a substitute. Meanwhile, Argos and her colleagues noted that rice can bioaccumulate many potentially harmful toxic metals from water, soil, or fertilizers.
Exposure to arsenic, mercury, and other toxic metals correlates to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other diseases. Authors of the study concludes that “despite such a dramatic shift in the diet of many Americans, little is known about how gluten-free diets might affect exposure to toxic metals found in certain foods.”
Therefore, Argos and her team determined to know more about the connection between gluten-free diets and exposure to toxic metals. To do so, they analyzed the data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey that was from 2009 and 2014 and involved 7,471 individuals. After thorough research, they identified 73 participants, who followed a gluten-free diet.
Then, they took blood and urine samples to test the levels of metal toxicity among those surveyed. Once completed, the researchers found that mercury levels were 70% higher in the blood among the gluten-free subjects. As for arsenic, the toxicity levels were twice as high in the urine for those on the diet. Ultimately, the results indicate that metal toxicity is higher in subjects following the gluten-free diet than those who eat gluten.
The researchers add that:
“With the increasing popularity of gluten-free diets, these findings may have important health implications since the health effects of low-level arsenic and mercury exposure from food sources are uncertain but may increase the risk for cancer and other chronic diseases.
Although we can only speculate, rice may be contributing to the observed higher concentrations of metal biomarkers among those on a gluten-free diet as the primary substitute grain in gluten-free products.”
In Europe, regulations limit arsenic in food products. Argos suggests doing the same in the U.S, especially if rice flour consumption increases the risk for exposure to arsenic.”
Since further research is still needed to determine the health risks of a gluten-free diet, consider going off the diet until the results are in, unless your doctor specifically recommends it. If you’re on the diet or considering going on the diet, ask your doctor first. And to prepare for any and all medical expenses, make sure you have health insurance! Contact an Empower agent today who can help you find the right health plan for you.
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