A few years ago, if someone mentioned the word gluten, they would be met with expressions of puzzlement and confusion. Fast Forward to 2015 and everywhere we turn, we see “Gluten-Free” labels plastered across all our favourite foods.
SO WHAT IS GLUTEN AND WHY MUST I BE ‘FREE’ OF IT??
Gluten is a protein which is most commonly found in wheat, barely, rye and sometimes oats. It has been consumed by humans for the past ten thousand years and is one of the most commonly consumed proteins on earth!
However, recently we have become aware of three different clinical problems that are worsened by gluten: coeliac disease, a wheat allergy and a non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune impairment which impacts approximately one in seven Australians, however, up to 80% of cases go undiagnosed. Coeliac disease causes the immune system to react abnormally to gluten, which damages the intestinal lining (villi) of the gut and can decrease the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. This can cause causing various digestive issues, and even anaemia, lethargy and bone and joint pains.
Other gluten intolerances include wheat allergies or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, which are not diseases but can impair the body’s ability to digest gluten causing digestive issues such as bloating, diarrhoea and general discomfort. These two problems are largely over diagnosed as many people self diagnoses rather than confirm this through doctors.
So how ‘unhealthy’ is Gluten??
Gluten itself is not inherently unhealthy. The reason it has been given such a bad rap is arguably due to the fact it is associated with typically “unhealthy” foods such as cakes, biscuits and pastries. However, the “unhealthy” factor of these foods have nothing to do with the gluten, but rather the calorie and sugar content.
So while some say that a “gluten-free” diet will lead to weight loss, this actually is down to the fact that you may replace processed treats with fresh food. However, if your version of a “gluten-free” diet consists of trading in whole grain foods for “gluten-free” treats, then this is absolutely not the case. Instead, you may limit your intake of dietary fibre, calcium, iron, riboflavin and folate!
A “gluten-free” cake, which has had nothing else removed from it other than gluten, is still a cake. In fact, it is likely that the “gluten-free” option of many of our foods is both higher in sugar and fat and even more expensive.
This reminds me of the “low-fat” craze that stated in the 1980s. This saw many food production company replacing the fat in their products with sugar and calories. We were duped into believing that all fat was bad fat! It is only recently that the public has begun to fully appreciate the huge difference between unsaturated fats (which can help prevent heart disease) and saturated fats (which can promote it). This highlights the disconnect between nutrition facts and the powerful myths that govern our eating habits.
Why are we suddenly scared of Gluten?
The idea that “gluten is a poison” was sparked by Dr William Davis whose book “Wheat Belly” claims that even “healthy” whole grains are destructive, causing everything from arthritis to asthma to multiple sclerosis. The fact that Davis is a cardiologist, not a dietitian raises many questions as does his inability to produce any solid statistics to back up his exaggerated claims. Despite this, “Wheat Belly” has become one of the foundational texts of the “gluten-free” movement.
The recent popularity of the Paleo diet has also contributed to the amount of people choosing to go “gluten-free” in an attempt to be more “healthy”. The Paleo Leap claim that wheat, and the gluten in it, is “toxic” to the health of everyone who consumes it, not just those with coeliac disease.
They state that “gluten causes gut inflammation in at least 80% of the population” and attempt to link the consumption of gluten to
Type 1 Diabetes, Autism and Schizophrenia. They even claim that gluten is “potentially cancer causing and at the very least, cancer promoting”. There is no evidence to support this statement. In fact, numerous studies suggest that a diet high in fibre and whole grains may actually lower the risk of most cancers.
So what does the research say?
The scientific research that launched gluten into the spotlight was led by Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology, in 2011. His study seemed to provide evidence that gluten could cause illness in people who did not have coeliac disease (it is this research that is often quoted by “gluten-free” enthusiasts).
He published his findings but urged readers to show restraint in interpreting the data as it was not conclusive. But the fate of gluten’s reputation was sealed. The “gluten-free” market boomed and many people with symptoms of gastric distress had something to blame it on.
However, in 2013 Gibson devised a second study which concluded that FODMAPs, rather than gluten, is likely to cause gastrointestinal symptoms. FODMAPs are sugars which are properly absorbed in the stomach. They ferment in the bowel and create gases which are particularly uncomfortable for those who suffer with IBS. But FODMAPs are more complex than gluten and so convincing those who had already given up gluten is problematic.
If so many people feel better after giving it up then maybe I should too??
The popularity of the “gluten-free” diet is not all bad!
It should be celebrated for shining a light on coeliac disease and creating diversity in the “gluten-free” market. It has also encouraged some people to minimise the amount of processed food they eat and up their veggie and fruit intake.
However, for the vast majority of us who have had no trouble in digesting gluten, there is no evidence to suggest that living the “gluten-free” life will improve our health. If anything, it could leave us worse off as we effectively lower our intake of certain vitamins and minerals, in particular dietary fibre (something that majority of Australian adults are lacking).
Therefore, if you have not been diagnosed with coeliac disease, it is not recommended that you follow a gluten-free diet. If you do however, suspect that you have an intolerance, please contact an Accredited Practicing Dietitian before you consider changing your diet. This way you can ensure that you are meeting all your nutritional needs.
Resources ~ I have also included hyperlinks throughout this post so you can do your own investigation!
Gluten Intolerance Group
The Conversation – So you think you have IBS or Coeliac Disease [Rebecca Reynolds (Nutrition Lecturer)
The New Yorker – What’s So Bad about Gluten [ Michael Specter (Health Journalist)]