Updated: Jun 17
The last decade has seen a huge increase of nuanced diets and ways of eating; from paleo to keto, vegetarian to vegan, more than ever are we seeing eating habits that often exclude substantial food groups. One of the most common misconceptions to be borne from this diet boom is around gluten, and being “gluten-free” – is this a healthy way for everyone to eat?
Let’s look at what gluten is. Gluten is a protein found in many grains such as wheat, rye, barley and spelt. What is less known is that as well as being present in bread, pasta and cereals, gluten is also found in many processed sauces, soups, gravies, condiments and baked goods.
Gluten can cause unpleasant and painful symptoms in those who are gluten intolerant, have gluten sensitivity (these are not the same thing) or have a wheat allergy. Those who are intolerant to gluten have what is known as coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition whereby the immune system reacts to the presence of gluten causing inflammation and damage to the lining of the gut. Symptoms can be varied, from abdominal cramping, constipation and bloating to fatigue and weight loss due to sub-optimal nutrient absorption. By removing gluten from the diet completely, those with coeliac disease should see a significant improvement in their symptoms.
Gluten sensitivity is harder to define and whilst symptoms can be similar to those experienced by coeliacs, there is no associated damage to the gut wall lining on ingestion of gluten and there does not appear to be an immune response associated with the condition. Unfortunately, there is no definitive diagnostic test for assessing gluten sensitivity, but removal of gluten from the diet is recommended if this has a marked impact on reducing symptoms.
Wheat allergy is where the body overreacts to the presence of wheat and mounts an immune response. Symptom onset is usually immediate following consumption of wheat, such as a rash, hives, itching of the mouth/throat and, in severe cases, breathing difficulties and anaphylaxis. You are more likely to suffer from a wheat allergy if allergies run in your family. Total avoidance of wheat is recommended in these cases.
Food manufacturers have jumped onto this growing trend of gluten-free by marketing huge ranges of gluten-free products that on the face of it can appear as healthier alternatives to their gluten-containing counterparts. However this is often not the case; logic dictates that if you take something out, you generally have to replace it with something else, and in the case of gluten-free products, the replacement ingredient is more often than not fat and sugar. One study found that those with diagnosed coeliac disease and were following a gluten-free diet consumed more sugar and fat than non-coeliacs; another study compared nutrition labels for over 1,700 products and found that gluten-free products had more fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar than their gluten-containing alternatives. They also tend to have a much lower protein content meaning they will leave you feeling less full.
Then there is the price tag; one study found that gluten free products were on average 159% more expensive, so not only are they nutritionally lacking, they will quickly ramp up your food bill too.
If you are following a gluten-free diet, a key tip is to eat food that is as fresh as possible; include as many natural gluten-free foods as possible rather than relying heavily on gluten-free processed food products. There are numerous gluten-free grains such as quinoa, buckwheat and gluten-free oats as alternatives to gluten-containing grains. It is also important to include fresh meat, poultry and fish, and a wide range of fresh fruit and vegetables.
In summary, there is no compelling evidence of any health (and certainly no financial) benefits of following a gluten free diet unless you have coeliac disease, gluten sensitivity or a wheat allergy. If you suspect you have one of these and feel you need support, speak to your primary healthcare provider or a registered nutritional therapist like myself who will be able to help you.
Thanks for reading!