Genetic, lifestyle, and health-related characteristics of adults without celiac disease who follow a gluten-free diet: a population-based study of 124,447 participants

Am J Clin Nutr. 2021 Mar 11;113(3):622-629. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqaa291.


Background: The number of gluten-free diet followers without celiac disease (CD) is increasing. However, little is known about the characteristics of these individuals.

Objectives: We address this issue by investigating a wide range of genetic and phenotypic characteristics in association with following a gluten-free diet.

Methods: The cross-sectional association between lifestyle and health-related characteristics and following a gluten-free diet was investigated in 124,447 women and men aged 40-69 y from the population-based UK Biobank study. A genome-wide association study (GWAS) of following a gluten-free diet was performed.

Results: A total of 1776 (1.4%) participants reported following a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free diet followers were more likely to be women, nonwhite, highly educated, living in more socioeconomically deprived areas, former smokers, have lost weight in the past year, have poorer self-reported health, and have made dietary changes as a result of illness. Conversely, these individuals were less likely to consume alcohol daily, be overweight or obese, have hypertension, or use cholesterol-lowering medication. Participants with hospital inpatient diagnosed blood and immune mechanism disorders (OR: 1.62; 95% CI: 1.18, 2.21) and non-CD digestive system diseases (OR: 1.58; 95% CI: 1.42, 1.77) were more likely to follow a gluten-free diet. The GWAS demonstrated that no genetic variants were associated with being a gluten-free diet follower.

Conclusions: Gluten-free diet followers have a better cardiovascular risk profile than non-gluten-free diet followers but poorer self-reported health and a higher prevalence of blood and immune disorders and digestive conditions. Reasons for following a gluten-free diet warrant further investigation.

Keywords: UK Biobank; cross-sectional study; genome-wide association study; gluten free; health; lifestyle.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Data Collection
  • Diet, Gluten-Free*
  • Female
  • Genome-Wide Association Study*
  • Humans
  • Life Style*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • United Kingdom