Gluten and cancer: friend or foe?

cancer and glutenGluten-free is a new buzz word associated with improved health and well-being. Gluten is a protein matrix in wheat, barley and rye formed by gliadin and glutenin that gives bread and baked goods their airy texture.  While only 1.5% of the population need to follow a gluten-free diet – those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) – nearly 30% of Americans are following such a diet. The reasons vary widely from weight loss to mood to cancer, but is there evidence about gluten and cancer to prove the anti-cancer claims of a gluten-free diet?

There is evidence of an association between gluten and an increased risk of cancer for only a very small group of individuals, namely persons with celiac disease who are not following a gluten-free diet. For the other 98.5% of the population, gluten is completely safe to eat and more likely beneficial in the fight against cancer.

Numerous observational studies have shown that diets high in whole grains, including wheat, rye and barley, result in a lower risk of most types of cancers. This link is likely due to the rich fiber content of these foods; in fact up to 43% of fiber in the U.S. diet comes from these grains. Fiber helps to stabilize blood sugar and hormone levels and helps with weight maintenance by increasing satiety. Whole grains also contain the phytochemicals inositol and sterols, B-vitamins and iron with combined effects can slow the growth of tumors, act as antioxidants, decrease inflammation, cause the death of cancer cells, optimize oxygenation and fight fatigue.

A gluten-free diet can be expensive and hard to follow, as many broths, sauces and seasoned products such as rice mixes, tortillas and potato chips may contain small amount of gluten. It has been highly touted as a successful weight loss tactic, which could reduce cancer risk, but this is more likely related to elimination of calories from breads, crackers, pasta and cookies, than its gluten-free content.

Bottom line, while the gluten-free diet is vital to health and well-being in an individual with celiac disease or NCGS, no benefit has been shown in the general population. The cost and effort of such a diet is significant and results in needlessly avoiding healthy foods that have been shown to lower risk of cancer.

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.

Take the next step:

  • Call to schedule an appointment with one of our Cancer Center Registered Dietitians at 1-877-907-0859 if you are interested in what diet is more likely to reduce your risk of cancer, as well as other chronic diseases.

Learn more about nutrition and cancer

Registered dietitians who are specially trained in the field of oncology nutrition provide cancer nutrition services at the Comprehensive Cancer Center. They focus on assessing the individual dietary and nutrition needs of each patient and providing practical, scientifically sound assistance.



University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer CenterThe University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan for cancer patient care. Seventeen multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.