A new study shows people who buy gluten-free products also engage in other health-motivated behavior. That’s good news—mostly.
Consumers support a $1.6-billion gluten-free food industry, but only a fraction of them are sensitive to gluten. Researchers are trying to understand the so-called health halo that leads so many people to avoid gluten. The products are not necessarily more nutritious. They often contain less whole grain and more calories, saturated fat and salt than standard alternatives.
Researchers surveyed young adult volunteers who were initially recruited from public middle and high schools in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, for a food study in 1998-’99. A follow-up questionnaire in 2015-’16 asked how much participants valued gluten-free products. Answers were received from 1,819 people aged 25 to 36.
Approximately 13 percent considered gluten-free an important food attribute. Those who did were also more likely to value foods that were organic, unprocessed, locally grown and not genetically modified. Compared with people who did not value gluten-free food, they practiced healthier habits, such as eating breakfast daily, using nutrition facts on package labels and meeting exercise guidelines. On average, they consumed one more daily serving of fruits and vegetables and 20 percent more fiber than others in the study. Despite the potential pitfalls of a gluten-free diet, people who valued these products appeared to achieve a healthier lifestyle overall.
On the down side, they were more likely to use unhealthy means to control their weight, such as vomiting or taking diet pills. This study from University of Minnesota suggests people who value gluten-free products want a healthier life but do not always make sound medical choices. The authors encourage clinicians to inquire about weight loss goals and consider food costs for low-income families when advising patients interested in following a gluten-free diet.
Van Waffle is a freelance journalist in Waterloo, Canada, and research editor for Gluten-Free Living. He blogs at vanwaffle.com.