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AICR Health Talk

Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND
American Institute for Cancer Research

Q: What role does a gluten-free diet play in reducing cancer risk?

A: Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye and barley that poses no risk to most people. For people who have celiac disease, gluten sets off a reaction (in which the body’s immune system attacks its own cells) creating damage in the intestines that could increase risk of cancer. In this disease, closely following a gluten-free diet is vital.

There may be a spectrum of other, separate gluten-related disorders, called “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” (NCGS) based on emerging research. For these people, symptoms like digestive tract pain, headache or fatigue improve when gluten is removed. So far, researchers don’t consider it related to cancer risk. In either case, people avoiding gluten can eat a well-balanced diet, replacing the three gluten-containing grains with potatoes, whole-grain rice, soy, amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, beans and starch or flour made from any of these. However, if you do not have celiac disease or NCGS, research shows no cancer protection from avoiding gluten. In fact, whole-grain foods containing gluten can be good sources of fiber and phytochemicals that may be cancer-protective.


The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is the cancer charity that fosters research on the relationship of nutrition, physical activity and weight management to cancer risk, interprets the scientific literature and educates the public about the results. It has contributed over $105 million for innovative research conducted at universities, hospitals and research centers across the country. AICR has published two landmark reports that interpret the accumulated research in the field, and is committed to a process of continuous review. AICR also provides a wide range of educational programs to help millions of Americans learn to make dietary changes for lower cancer risk. AICR is a member of the World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF).

Published on 01/25/2016

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