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.