Gluten-free diet may increase heart disease risk, scientists warn

Researchers at the Harvard Medical School are warning that eating a gluten-free diet could increase a healthy person’s risk of developing coronary heart disease.

The scientists wanted to examine the association of long-term intake of gluten with the development of incident coronary heart disease.

It is well established that people with coeliac disease have an increased risk of heart disease, but that that risk is reduced after treatment with a gluten-free diet. This, say the Harvard scientists, has led to concern that gluten may increase cardiovascular risk among healthy people. At the same time, belief that gluten may also be linked to obesity, diabetes and mental health problems has grown among the public and some health practitioners, along with the view that a gluten-free diet carries general health benefits.

The Havard scientists studied the progress of 64, 714 women and 45, 303 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study without a history of coronary heart disease who completed a 131 item semi-quantitative food frequency questionnaire in 1986 that was updated every four years through 2010.

Compared with participants in the lowest fifth of gluten intake, who had a coronary heart disease incidence rate of 352 per 100,000 person years, those in the highest fifth had a rate of 277 events per 100,000 person years – with an unadjusted rate difference of 75 (95% CI 51 to 98) fewer cases of coronary heart disease per 100,000 person years.

The Havard team concludes that long term dietary intake of gluten is not associated with risk of coronary heart disease. But they also argue that avoidance of gluten may result in reduced consumption of beneficial whole grains, which may affect cardiovascular risk. Therefore, they say, promotion of gluten-free diets among people without celiac disease should not be encouraged.

Lead researcher, Andrew Chan, said: “Doctors and nutritionists should counsel their patients that restricting gluten may not be beneficial for one’s heart health and should not be considered an alternative to eating a balanced diet high in whole grains.”