Think before going gluten-free!
Gluten is often blamed for multiple illnesses: headaches, digestive distress, weight gain, poor immune function and even behavioural problems in children.
Many people are choosing to follow gluten-free diets (or wheat-free, for that matter) but is it really the way to be or is it just another food trend?
What is gluten?
Gluten is a natural-occurring protein found in wheat, barley, rye and some processed oats as well as all foods made from these grains including most flours, cereals, breads, pastas, crackers, cakes and biscuits. However, not all grains contain gluten. Cassava, corn, flax, potatoes, quinoa, rice and many other grains are naturally gluten-free. Oats are also gluten-free, but processed oats often become contaminated with other gluten-containing foods. Remember to always check the label.
Why is gluten used?
Protein is the main nutritional benefit that gluten offers. Aside from this, gluten improves the texture of foods, enhancing the elasticity and chewiness. It helps dough to rise and keep its shape and acts as a binder, thickener and stabilizer in many processed foods including bread, ice cream and salad dressing as well as take-away and restaurant foods. Due to all these properties, it is often one of the key ingredients in imitation meat products (beef, pork, chicken, duck and fish) and is used in veggie burgers and specialty foods that are designed to be higher in protein. Gluten is also found in some cosmetics, hair products, toothpaste and medicines.
Why avoid gluten?
You don’t need to avoid gluten unless you have coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity, or you are allergic to wheat, barley and rye. Many alternative health practitioners blame gluten and wheat for a variety of health problems such as depression, fatigue, weight gain and digestive problems. However, there is no evidence whatsoever to support this in healthy individuals. Although we have all heard the seemingly convincing stories about the person who gave up gluten and finally lost 4 stone, or felt more energetic and less depressed after going gluten-free, there is another simple reason for this - they followed a more balanced and nutritious diet.
A person who is following a gluten-free diet will avoid most, if not all, processed foods, take-away foods and restaurant foods, in other words foods that are notoriously high in fat, sodium and calories and low in nutrients. Furthermore, they are increasingly likely to cook more meals at home, ensuring they know what ingredients they use (or don’t use) and are likely to eat more unprocessed foods such as fruits and vegetables.
Following these dietary practices will certainly improve your weight status, energy levels, and general feeling of well-being; but is it really because you have removed gluten from your diet? Can you blame the gluten in your pizza for your digestive distress or weight gain? Or might it actually be the pizza itself? Gluten-free diet or not, we all know the benefits of eating more fresh, unprocessed foods, cooking more at home and dining out less often.
What are the challenges to following a gluten-free diet?
Going gluten-free isn’t an easy diet to follow. People who suffer from coeliac disease or a diagnosed intolerance to gluten face many nutritional lifestyle challenges including:
- Cross contamination - if everyone in the household doesn't follow a gluten-free diet, there is a risk of cross contamination. Different colanders, toasters and condiment containers need to be used to avoid gluten-free products becoming contaminated with crumbs from gluten-containing products
- Nutrient deficiencies - gluten-free products don't always contain the same nutrients as those that contain gluten. Adequate intake of calcium, iron, B vitamins, vitamin D and fibre needs to be considered
- Eating out - some restaurants can provide gluten-free menus, making it easier to figure out what is safe to eat. If not, individuals will need to make sure that all the foods they are going to eat are gluten-free. They will also need to ask if the meat is marinated or dusted with flour, if breaded foods are fried in the same oil as other fried foods or if wheat flour is used to thicken sauces or soups
- Misdiagnosis & self-diagnosis - many people investigate their symptoms themselves and come to the conclusion that they have gluten sensitivities. Unfortunately these symptoms could be caused by other serious conditions that giving up gluten will not solve. Only a doctor can test for and rule out other conditions. If you think you have sensitivity to gluten, see your doctor first for correct diagnosis
- Gluten-free doesn't mean healthy - gluten-free foods are not always nutritious, low in calories or beneficial to health. Many gluten-free packaged foods are highly processed and are best avoided
- Cost - gluten-free products cost a lot more than standard products, especially gluten-free processed foods. In fact ‘gluten-free’ is a booming business and the reasons for this have left experts in the field perplexed. "The market for gluten-free products is exploding. Why exactly we don’t know. Many people may just perceive that a gluten-free diet is healthier." Peter H.R. Green, MD, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University.
Whether the grain you choose is gluten-free or not, enjoying more whole grains is a healthy choice. For good health, make at least half of your grain choices whole grain each day.
For more information on gluten-free diets please ensure you visit reputable sites such as those listed below: