THOUSANDS of Australians on gluten-free diets for self-reported wheat "sensitivities" are potentially risking long term health impacts, including increased cardiovascular risk, a Hunter/Central Coast study has found.
The safety of a gluten-free diet for people with coeliac disease - a diagnosed condition affecting 1 per cent of the population intolerant to gluten - "does not indicate that it has health benefits for those who do not", said the study authors in a Medical Journal of Australia report today.
The long-term study of the incidence and prevalence of self-reported "non-coeliac wheat sensitivity and gluten avoidance" in Australia, initially involving nearly 3542 people contacted at random in Newcastle and Gosford in 2015, found 14 per cent self-reported wheat sensitivities.
Almost one-quarter of people re-surveyed in 2018 were avoiding dietary wheat or gluten despite not being diagnosed with coeliac disease, the study led by University of Newcastle and John Hunter Hospital researchers found.
While general health considerations and abdominal symptoms are the most frequently reported reasons people avoid gluten and wheat products, many Australians "unnecessarily subject themselves to gluten-free diets" with potential long-term impacts, the study found.
"Identifying genuinely wheat-sensitive individuals is important because the gluten-free diet has a number of potential disadvantages, including adverse effects on cardiovascular risk, higher rates of micronutrient deficiency, and even increased ingestion of toxins such as arsenic," the study said.
"That gluten avoidance improves weight control or general health is not supported by published evidence."
A recognised study that assessed gluten intake in more than 100,000 people found that increasing gluten consumption was associated with lower cardiovascular risk, the study said.
"Together with our findings, this suggests that a large proportion of people in Australia avoid gluten or wheat for reasons of weight control or general health without convincing evidence supporting this choice.
"Coeliac disease is an immune-mediated systemic condition that affects about 1 per cent of the Australian population. It manifests as a small intestinal enteropathy triggered by exposure to dietary gluten, for which the treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet.
"However, many Australians not diagnosed with coeliac disease also avoid gluten, having reported physiological symptoms they relate to gluten ingestion. Others avoid gluten because of its presumed general health benefits, despite evidence to the contrary."
In a separate report in the Medical Journal of Australia today an American research team looking at gluten avoidance found that the long term benefits and risks of gluten avoidance for people without coeliac disease is unknown.
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