Adopting a gluten-free (GF) diet has become quite the fad over recent years with not only celebrities like Miley Cyrus, but also with individuals that proclaim themselves to be experts in nutritional science. Gluten has been linked to a variety of health conditions for e.g. migraines, weight gain etc. Now, many believe that going on a gluten-free diet is a healthy dietary choice for everyone. This post will discuss if this is indeed true.
What is gluten?
Gluten is the main storage protein contained within the germ of wheat grains, rye, barley and triticale. Gluten helps foods maintain their shape, acting as a glue that holds food together¹.
A condition where dietary gluten is detrimental to the health of individuals is coeliac disease. This is a common immune-mediated disease that affects 1 % of Western populations¹. Damage to the small intestine caused by gluten can result in gastrointestinal symptoms (diarrhoea, constipation, excessive wind, bloating)¹. There are also long term complications such as osteoporosis and infertility¹.
Things to consider
- Gluten itself doesn’t offer special nutritional benefits, but the whole grains that contain gluten do. Whole grains have B vitamins, iron and fibre and in a balanced diet may reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease⁴ .
- Going gluten free will mean adopting your whole diet in order to both avoid nutritional deficiencies and meet dietary guidelines. This is going to be difficult without expert dietary guidance from a dietitian, which those diagnosed with coeliac disease would automatically receive.
- Going gluten-free can be costly as processed gluten-free foods are significantly more expensive than their conventional counterparts⁵ . Especially if you have not being diagnosed with coeliac disease, as those diagnosed with this condition are allowed GP prescriptions for GF products to help with the expense.
- A study by Wu et al. who compared the healthiness of GF vs non-GF food concluded that the consumption of GF products is unlikely to confer health benefits, unless there is clear evidence of gluten intolerance⁶. Researchers found that GF discretionary foods had overall, similar nutritional profiles (except in protein content) to non-GF products⁶. In other words, GF foods were not on average found to be superior in healthiness than gluten containing products.
- Caution for vegetarians/vegans- The slightly lower protein content found in GF products⁶ is unlikely to greatly impact those on a GF diet who consume animal protein sources; but the protein intakes of those who don’t could be affected and therefore, an understanding of other protein sources in the diet is crucial to avoid deficiency.
- It may not be gluten that is causing you problems but FODMAPS (poorly absorbed dietary short-chain carbohydrates). For example, one study found that in patients who had self-reported gluten sensitivity, reducing FODMAP intake significantly improved gastrointestinal symptoms².
- In my view, there is not enough evidence to claim that going gluten-free is the healthier dietary choice for everyone. However, it is certainly the best health choice for someone who has been diagnosed with gluten intolerance.
- If you have bowel symptoms that you think are gluten-related, it would be in your best interests to go to your doctor and seek a diagnosis to be sure if you have gluten intolerance.
- It is also important to note that gluten may not be to blame for all if any symptoms you may be experiencing as a result from your diet. Therefore, it is important to undergo medical investigation to find the cause. It could be from FODMAPS, or may be an intolerance or allergy from another food constituent.