Lately it seems that many people are hopping on the gluten-free bandwagon and making significant changes to their lifestyle and diet. So how has gluten gotten such a bad rep? Is it really harmful to our bodies? And... what is it exactly?!
In the past few years, celebrities, athletes, bloggers and lifestyle gurus have been advocates of the gluten-free diet. World famous tennis star Novak Djokovic credits cutting gluten from his diet with his extraordinary winning streak, and even stars like Miley Cyrus, Victoria Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow swear by this fad.
With the global market for gluten-free foods projected to reach $24 billion in 2020, and gluten itself being demonized as the cause of diseases from Alzheimer’s to Dementia to ADHD, just how much of this noise around gluten is justified?
Is it as harmful to your health as it’s made out to be? Should you really go gluten-free?
What is gluten
Gluten actually refers to a group of proteins that are found in wheat and other similar grains like barley and rye. The two proteins that form gluten are called gliadin and glutenin, which help bread to rise by allowing pockets of air to form in dough. They also give foods like pizza and bagels their irresistible chewy texture.
What foods contain gluten
Gliadin and glutenin come together to form fine strands that form a network that supports air bubbles. Common foods that contain gluten include bread, pasta and cereals as well as less obvious culprits such as soups, sauces and salad dressings. There are a lot of foods that are naturally gluten-free, such as meat, fruit, vegetables, rice, potatoes and lentils.
What is coeliac disease
There is a whole range of gluten-related disorders. The most famous of which is Coeliac disease. This is estimated to affect up to 1% of the population in Europe and America. This autoimmune disorder means there is an abnormal immune response to things naturally found in the body.
In the case of coeliac disease, the body mistakes the presence of gluten proteins in the intestines as a threat and responds by releasing immune cells, which attack and damage the intestinal lining. This makes it harder for the body to absorb nutrients from other foods and causes symptoms such as weight loss and abdominal pain. For those with coeliac disease, the only treatment is to follow a strict gluten-free diet.
Another gluten-related disorder is ‘non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS)’, which is similar to coeliac disease in terms of symptoms. People who have NCGS have improved symptoms when they cut out gluten from their diet, but the evidence as to whether gluten is the culprit is conflicting.
Going gluten-free without celiac disease
Is it bad to go gluten-free? If you have coeliac disease or a diagnosed non-coeliac gluten sensitivity then going gluten-free is an absolute necessity for your health. However, as a third of adults in the US say that they are planning to eliminate gluten from their diets, it's clear that gluten is being seen as a dietary evil – but this isn't necessarily the case.
Symptoms of gluten intolerance
Firstly, if you have a wheat allergy, your body reacts badly to one or more of the many proteins found in wheat, which might include gluten. Symptoms include stomach pain or digestive issues, skin rashes, painful IBS and a low immune system.
Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease share many of the same symptoms. If you have gluten sensitivity however, you are more likely to experience obvious, quick symptoms. Gluten affects the body by developing symptoms like gas, bloating and diarrhea or constipation soon after eating gluten. Being sensitive to gluten does not damage your intestines, so you don't have to worry about sticking to a strict gluten-free diet.
Disadvantages of gluten-free
If you do not have celiac disease, wheat allergy or sensitivity to gluten, you may actually be causing more harm to yourself! Here are 3 reasons why a gluten-free diet isn’t all it's cracked up to be:
1. Gluten-free products are often less healthy
A lot of supposedly healthy gluten-free products are actually packed with extra additives, refined grains and calories to make them taste better. For example, gluten-free bread contains more sugar and fat than ‘normal’ bread.
2. Gluten provides vital nutrients
Wheat contains protein, fibre, Vitamin B, folates and iron – all vital for a healthy diet, and are often missing from the gluten-free equivalents. A recent review from Reading University stated, "It is therefore an over-reaction to assume that the health of more than a small proportion of the population will be improved by eliminating wheat or gluten from the diet. In fact, the opposite may occur, as wheat is an important source of protein, B vitamins, minerals and bioactive components."
3. Gluten-free diets are expensive
If all that wasn't enough to put you off of a gluten-free diet then consider this – a study at Dalhousie University compared the prices of various regular and gluten-free products and found the gluten-free equivalents to be just over 240% more expensive. For example, a Genius Gluten Free Brown Sliced Bread weighs in at £5.61/kg, whereas Warburtons Medium Sliced Wholemeal Bread is just £2/kg.
How do I know if I'm gluten intolerant
Nutritionist and Good Zing expert Jess Cording says, "When it comes to non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), keeping a food journal may be helpful to notice which specific foods trigger symptoms. Noticing patterns will give you insight on which foods to avoid. Have fun experimenting with recipes using whole food that are naturally gluten-free, such as beans and potatoes and scoping out gluten-free grains like quinoa, rice, amaranth, buckwheat, and millet."
So think twice before you eliminate gluten from your diet and claim you're intolerant without doing the research. Following a diet fad can be interesting if you do your homework, but dangerous if you choose to ignore the research. You may just be missing out on vital nutrients and the kick-start you need to actually live a healthier diet and lifestyle!
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