Gluten-free diets have well and truly entered the mainstream, to the point where you can now find gluten-free alternatives in chain supermarkets.
Fans of gluten-free rave about how it has improved their moods, given them more energy and a better skin complexion, reduced bloatedness and improved their digestion, among other perceived benefits.
But the movement’s detractors call it nothing more than a fad diet that makes light of those who have coeliac disease, a serious medical condition that causes adverse reactions when gluten is consumed.
Little is known about the potential impact of going gluten-free if you don’t have coeliac disease or other gluten-related conditions. But nutritionists have warned that cutting out gluten can result in nutritional deficiencies. Besides, people have eaten bread for centuries, and there is no evidence to show that foods containing gluten pose an immediate danger to the health of most people.
But first, let’s look a little more closely at what gluten is, and whether it is truly necessary to abandon it in the search for better health.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a type of protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, spelt and barley. These are the ingredients that are used to make every day carb staples such as bread, beer, pasta and cereals – its elasticity gives bread its airy structure and crumb, and pasta its springiness.
To put it simply, anything that is made with flour has gluten. So that covers most starchy foods, desserts and even breaded foods, like chicken nuggets and tempura. Taking away gluten from your diet also means giving up some of the tastiest foods in the world – after all, carbohydrate-rich foods are a source of comfort for many.
But gluten is also found in more innocuous foods, often as a thickener or in the form of additive that helps to bind other ingredients. These include:
- sausages and meatballs
- veggie burgers
- salad dressings
Trace amounts of gluten are found in household items and toiletries, such as:
- some medications and supplements
The popularity of the gluten-free diet means that gluten-free options, such as corn flour, almond flour, rice flour and coconut flour, have begun appearing on supermarket shelves with increasing frequency.
But there isn’t any scientific evidence that supports the claims of better skin, gut health and higher energy levels – it’s all based on feedback and testimonials from the gluten-free community. It is difficult to pinpoint the effects of going gluten-free, as such claims could be due to a myriad of other reasons.
For example, the community insists that going gluten-free has improved energy levels, but scientists say that they may have simply removed foods that are high in refined carbohydrates such as white flour, pastries and pasta from their diet.
Refined carbohydrates are quick to digest, which leads to a crash in blood sugar levels, causing lethargy and tiredness. But consuming whole-grain foods such as brown bread and brown rice, which contain gluten, can provide more energy as the body takes a longer time to digest these foods. In this case, gluten isn’t the culprit.
What is coeliac disease?
There are people who, unfortunately, are very allergic to gluten. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease, where ingesting as little 50 milligrams of gluten (equivalent to 1/70th of a slice of bread) can cause diarrhoea, bloating, gas, weight loss, rashes and depression. Coeliac disease results in gluten setting off an immune reaction that wreaks havoc in the small intestine. This blocks the absorption of nutrients from food, which can lead to more serious issues, such as seizures, osteoporosis, nerve damage and infertility.
Some people who do not have coeliac disease can still be sensitive to gluten. They may find that ingesting it can cause common allergic reactions, such as diarrhoea, fatigue and rashes.
Coeliac disease should not be dismissed or taken lightly. People with the disease go through great pains and sacrifices to make sure their diet and their immediate surroundings are completely free from gluten, just so they don’t end up on a hospital bed. They don’t eliminate delicious comfort foods like bread and pasta because it is the cool thing to do – they do it because they have no choice.
The health risks of cutting out gluten
Carbohydrates are part of a healthy diet and give us the energy to go about our day. Breads and cereals are also high in fibre, vitamins B and D, and folate. Fortified carbohydrates are rich in iron and calcium. Together with calcium, vitamins B and D are important for healthy skin and bones, while fibre helps you feel full and smoothes out digestion.
Nutritionists say that removing gluten may result in nutrient deficiencies, and this can cause health issues down the road. According to a recent study by global healthcare information provider BMJ, restricting gluten may result in a low intake of whole grains, which are associated with cardiovascular benefits. Scientists cited within the study have discouraged those without coeliac disease from cutting gluten out of their diets.
Gluten-free alternatives tend to be lower in fibre, and often use sugar and fat to compensate for the loss of taste and texture from removing the gluten. They are also more expensive than products containing gluten.
Some people eliminate or cut back on carbohydrates for a period as they want to lose weight, getting their sugars from vegetables and fruits. Even those with sedentary lifestyles should limit their carbohydrate intake to a moderate level or risk gaining weight. But that’s quite different from going gluten-free forever.
No gluten equals no fun
Something else to consider: regardless of what the gluten-free community says, gluten-free alternatives often don’t cut it and are not as good as the real thing. Take it from me: I have tried gluten-free spaghetti and it felt like chewing rubber bands.
Gluten-free bread, cakes and cookies can also turn out very dense and firm – most people are unlikely to find them satisfying. They are also much more expensive to make because gluten-free flour costs around twice as much as wheat flour. Gluten-free wheat flours are also pricey as it takes flour mills more time and effort to isolate the gluten.
Coeliac disease is rather rare – it afflicts just 1 per cent of the population. So unless you have the disease, or are otherwise sensitive to gluten, you might want to reconsider that plan to go gluten-free.