health

The truth about going gluten-free.

I have a friend who doesn’t eat any gluten – and not because she doesn’t want to.

She’s allergic. Severely, truly allergic. Diagnosed with Coeliac Disease a few years ago (an auto-immune condition which requires complete elimination of gluten from the diet), she avoids the protein composite like the plague.

Even a molecule of gluten can leave her hugging the toilet for the rest of the evening. She can even have a reaction from cross-contamination, which happens when a restaurant prepares gluten-free food on the same surface as non-gluten-free items, or even just uses the same cooking utensils.

And when she asks for gluten-free items at restaurants, waiters roll their eyes. They dismiss her concerns until she pulls out her Coeliac card, a card from Coeliac Australia which certifies that she is actually allergic.

This is, of course, because gluten-free has become the new black. You only have to walk into the health aisle of a supermarket to see that how it has exploded. There are oodles of gluten-free products to choose from, and products are quick to label their packaging with the ever-enviable “gluten free!” tag.

But here’s the thing. Most of the people who crying ‘gluten free’ wouldn’t actually be harmed if they ate the stuff. They just want to reap the supposed benefits of a gluten-free diet, such as weightloss. And it’s this trend that’s having a huge effect on that people who legitimately can’t eat gluten for health reasons.

Let’s do some calculations here. It’s estimated that about 10% of Australians are currently monitoring their gluten consumption. However, according to Coeliac Australia, only about 1.45% of these Australians actually have Coeliac disease.

There are also some Australians who also have a non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, although research around this is murky, with researchers attempting to determine whether gluten really is the problem in those with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

All in all, it doesn’t add up to 10% of Australians with a diagnosed issue with gluten. So why are the rest avoiding it?

Well, there’s no real explanation. Some claim to be “intolerant” to gluten, even though their condition tends to be self-diagnosed and sometimes inaccurate. Others might have been suckered into the myth that’s making its rounds around the health industry – that gluten is bad for you and should be eliminated for a healthy diet.

It’s this myth that is starting to get debunked by the mainstream media. People are starting to get frustrated with it – especially those with true gluten allergies whose dietary requirements aren’t being taken seriously.

Yesterday, Time magazine wrote an article about gluten-free, calling it the “nonsensical health fad” of our generation. While acknowledging that Coeliac disease and gluten ataxia (a condition that attacks the brain) are real issues, author Jeffrey Kluger points out that the majority of gluten-hate is largely manufactured by “too many people who know too little about nutrition saying too many silly things”:

The anti-gluties will surely tell you they feel better, fitter, more energetic, that their withdrawn child has suddenly blossomed and that their man—following the Guide For Guys—is healthier and happier. But the placebo effect—even the placebo effect by proxy, seeming to see better health in someone else—is a very real thing. Most of the time, however, it has nothing to do with the perceived cause.

Food fads are nothing new, and they do run their course. Eventually, the gluten-free cookbooks will wind up in the same river of pop detritus as the no-carb wines and the fat-free cookies and the crock pots and fondue sets and woks everyone in America seemed to buy at once in 1988 and stopped using sometime around 1989.

Kluger also references a Wall Street Street Journal article, which points out that gluten-free was virtually unheard of a decade ago, but has since exploded into a crazy consumer trend:

Some doctors began suggesting eliminating gluten from patients’ diets to address mysterious maladies. Celebrities began jumping on the bandwagon, touting it as a way to lose weight and boost energy. In the course of a few years, the mold was set: Today, gluten-free products can be found in every traditional supermarket and mass retailer… there’s even gluten-free dog food.

Both articles point out that unless you have a real, diagnosed issue with gluten, experts don’t recommend cutting it out of your diet. A statement echoed by many nutritionists and dietitans here in Australia as well.

ADVERTISEMENT
Nicole.

I had a chat to Nicole Senior, an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist, about going gluten-free. Nicole is also the author of four books, including “Food Myths” – so she’s an expert in sorting the truths from the mistruths.

She answered some of the bigger questions I had about going gluten-free.

Q: Is gluten actually bad for you?

A: There’s no scientific evidence to show that gluten is unhealthy, or bad for your body, even though this is a belief commonly held within health circles.

Q: Will going gluten-free make you healthier?

A: The problem with gluten-free is that it’s now seen as a health term or a health claim, and that’s not the case. Unless you have a diagnosed problem with gluten, you’re not going to be better off following a gluten-free diet.

Q: If you’re not diagnosed with a gluten problem, will going gluten-free be bad for you?

A: In most cases, you’d actually be worse off by following a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free products are highly processed, lower in fibre and lower in nutrients and high GI.

Q: How does one get diagnosed with a gluten problem?

A: To be diagnosed with Coeliac’s disease, you need to see a specialist gastroenterologist who can do a blood test and a biopsy of the small bowel to see if it’s damaged.

Unfortunately, a lot of self-diagnosis is going on with people who are having digestive problems. The main problem with self-diagnosis is that there are so many aspects of the diet that can be causing people to have symptoms. It may well not be gluten that is causing you problems .

It really does.

Q: Will going gluten-free make you lose weight?

A: There’s no evidence for that. Yes, it’s become hip to be gluten-free, but your diet may actually suffer as a result. And you might be doing it for no good reason at all.

Q: But one of my friends went gluten-free and she lost lots of weight and felt so much better…

A: Sometimes, people go gluten-free and actually just lose weight or feel better because they’re eating much healthier – instead of having cakes and biscuits, they’re sticking to things like fruit, vegetables, meat and rice.

However, as with anything, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to losing weight or getting healthy. We’re all different, and our digestive systems are all different. Just because something works for someone else doesn’t mean it will work for you.

So. There you have it. If you suspect you have a food intolerance, go and see a professional about it.

If you don’t? Well, let’s make it very clear.

There is absolutely no decent reason to be cutting out gluten. None. And you might be making other people’s lives quite difficult, completely unnecessarily.

So let’s give up the war on gluten and get back to eating that bread in peace.

Have you ever considered going on a gluten-free diet?

00:00 / ???