This article appears in Healthy Living Winter 2018.

Gluten-free is a popular choice for people trying to manage their weight, but is it for everyone?

“Many people associate going gluten-free with going carb-free, and these are certainly not mutually exclusive,” said Dr. Christopher Heron, a family medicine physician at Penn State Medical Group, State College, Pennsylvania. “People may lose weight on these diets because they are cutting down on carbs (bread, beer, pasta), which can be part of a good diet plan, but there are plenty of gluten-free foods that are carb- and sugar-rich.”

Gluten is a type of protein that is stored, along with starch, in many common types of grain, such as rye, wheat and barley. This protein accounts for more than half of the total protein in these grains and helps dough become elastic when kneaded. Because gluten is a protein, however, immune systems of individuals with digestive challenges can react poorly to it, resulting in conditions such as celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Many people believe that going gluten-free can help with weight loss or feelings of indigestion or fatigue. But ultimately, people who do not have a condition that requires the avoidance of gluten — such as celiac, an autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine — should not go 100 percent gluten-free.

“The grains found in wheat products are essential to overall health,” Heron said. “They provide nutrients that aren’t found in most gluten-free foods, which is why many people with celiac disease need to take a multivitamin.”

That said, most people consume a lot more foods made with white flour than our bodies require.

“Rather than going gluten-free, people who don’t suffer from a gluten-related disease should shoot for a healthier diet overall by managing portion size and being aware of foods’ nutritional content,” said Dr. Lauren Schneekloth, a family medicine physician at Penn State Medical Group.