When healthy people eat a low-gluten and fibre-rich diet compared with a high-gluten diet, they experience less intestinal discomfort including less bloating. Researchers at University of Copenhagen show that this is due to changes of the composition and function of gut bacteria.

The new study also shows a modest weight loss following low-gluten dieting. The researchers attribute the impact of diet on healthy adults more to changes in the composition of dietary fibres than gluten itself.

An increasing number of people eat a low-gluten diet, even though they are not allergic to the dietary substance. This trend has sparked public debate about whether or not low-gluten diets are recommendable for people without allergies. Now, researchers from University of Copenhagen among others have looked into just that.

In an intervention study of healthy Danish adults, reported today in Nature Communications, an international team of scientists shows that a low-gluten but fibre-rich diet changes the community of gut bacteria and decreases gastrointestinal discomfort such as bloating and is linked to a modest weight loss. The changes in intestinal comfort and body weight relate to changes in gut bacteria composition and function.

"We demonstrate that, in comparison with a high-gluten diet, a low-gluten, fibre-rich diet induces changes in the structure and function of the complex intestinal ecosystem of bacteria, reduces hydrogen exhalation, and leads to improvements in self-reported bloating," explains the leading principal investigator of the trial, Professor Oluf Pedersen, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research at University of Copenhagen.

No basis for change of diet recommendation yet

A low-gluten diet has previously been proposed to diminish gastrointestinal symptoms in patients with inflammatory bowel diseases and irritable bowel syndrome, disorders which occur in up to 20% of the general Western population. The present study suggests that even some healthy individuals may prefer a low-gluten diet to combat intestinal discomfort or excess body weight.

"More long-term studies are definitely needed before any public health advice can be given to the general population. We find dietary fibres—not the absence of gluten aloneto be the primary cause of the changes in intestinal discomfort and body weight," said senior lead investigator Professor Oluf Pedersen.

"We think that our study is a wake-up call to the food industry. Gluten-free may not necessarily be the healthy choice many people think it is. Most gluten-free food items available on the market today are massively deprived of dietary fibers and natural nutritional ingredients," said Pedersen.

"Therefore, there is an obvious need for availability of fibre-enriched, nutritionally high-quality, gluten-free food items that are fresh or minimally processed for consumers who prefer a low-gluten diet. Such initiatives may turn out to be key for alleviating gastro-intestinal discomfort and in addition to help facilitating weight control in the general population via modification of the gut microbiota," said Pedersen.