Does Gluten Cause Cancer?
Does gluten play a role in causing cancer, or it's recurrence?
There is no connection between gluten and risk of most cancers. The exception is intestinal cancer, and even then, gluten only increases risk if a person has celiac disease, or true gluten intolerance.
In fact, numerous observational studies show that the more whole grains a person eats, including the gluten-containing grains (wheat, rye, barley, and triticale), the lower his or her risk of most cancers. This is true for some of the most common types of cancer, such as breast, prostate, and colon cancers, as well as for less common cancers, such as cancer of the pancreas. Whole grains contain fiber, which can stabilize blood sugar and hormone levels.
Whole grains and fiber help us stay full, making it easier to maintain a healthy body weight. And whole grains contain hundreds of nutrients that appear to prevent damage in the body that can lead to cancer and its progression. For all of these reasons, whole grains—those with gluten and without—should be part of a healthy diet.
There is one situation in which gluten must be avoided completely: celiac disease, or true gluten intolerance. In this situation, exposure to gluten can lead to a host of health problems, including increased risk of intestinal cancer. However, even in people with celiac disease, gluten is not associated with increased risk of most other cancers.
But for people with celiac disease, gluten must be avoided in order to limit the risk of other devastating health effects, such as malnutrition, anemia, osteoporosis, neurological effects, alopecia (hair loss), skin rashes, and thyroid problems.
As a final note, well over half of all people following a gluten-free diet do not have celiac disease. This means people may be needlessly avoiding healthy foods that are linked with lower risk of many chronic diseases, including cancer. If you suspect you have gluten-intolerance, talk to your doctor. A blood test can help diagnose the condition. If you do not have celiac disease, but gluten-containing grains do not agree with you, try cutting back. You may not need to eliminate them completely. If you still find these foods cause you problems, make an appointment with a registered dietitian.
A registered dietitian can help you sort out your digestive issues, and design a healthy, cancer-risk reduction diet that helps you feel your best.
Submitted by Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, on behalf of the ON DPG
Page Updated: April 2013