The gluten-free diet seems to be the new health & nutrition trend. Celebrities claim to have achieved perfect figures thanks to following a gluten-free diet and weight loss programmes that are designed around the elimination of gluten. A number of sources suggest that the gluten-free diet boosts energy levels, improves digestion and enhances attention span. It is applied to manage conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism.
As demand grows for gluten-free food, more and more packaged food is labelled as such. Restaurants also offer gluten-free items on their menus to satisfy growing demand. Gluten-free cookbooks are published in an ever-growing number and thousands of gluten-free recipes can be found online.
The gluten-free diet is advertised as the new magic in the world of health and nutrition. Nonetheless, it is worth looking at gluten a bit more closely before jumping on the bandwagon.
What is gluten exactly?
Gluten is a type of nutritional composite which is composed of two different proteins, i.e. gliadin and glutenin. Gluten is found in the wheat endosperm, which is a type of tissue in seeds. It nourishes plant embryos in the course of germination. When food is prepared, gluten affects the elasticity of dough, thereby having an impact on the consistency of baked wheat products. It often gives a chewy texture to baked goods.
Gluten can be found in wheat, rye, barley, triticale (a cross between wheat and rye) and in other grains. Wheat products that contain gluten include bulgur, durum flour, farina, graham flour, kamut, semolina and spelt. Gluten-like proteins can also be found in maize and rice, which are also sometimes referred to as gluten.
Gluten can be found primarily in breads, cakes, pies, cookies, cereals and pastas. Beer, candies, ice-cream, French fries, packaged gravies, sauces, salad dressings, snack foods, packaged soups may also contain gluten. Sometimes gluten is used as a stabilising, thickening and binding agent and as an additive in packaged foods.
When is it justified to go gluten-free?
There is no scientific research that would support the widespread claims about the benefits of a gluten-free diet for those who do not have medical conditions that demand the elimination of gluten from their diet.
With regards to weight loss, a gluten-free diet can be misleading. If weight loss is achieved due to following a strict, gluten-free diet, it is probably due to the elimination of carbohydrates like bread and pasta. The weight loss in these cases tends not to be down to the elimination of gluten itself but to the lowering of carb intake related to the foodstuff that contains the gluten.
It is worth noting that sometimes a gluten-free diet may be even more calorific than a normal diet, as many gluten-free food items, primarily bakery products, are loaded with fat and sugar to impersonate the original qualities that gluten creates in baked goods.
Strict elimination of gluten is nonetheless crucial for those who suffer from gluten intolerance, aka coeliac disease. It is a condition that affects 0.5 to 1% of the population of the United States and the United Kingdom. Prevalence of this disease is assumed to be similar in other wheat-consuming countries globally. Gluten sensitivity is another condition that requires one to follow a gluten-free diet.
Coeliac disease is a chronic digestive disorder. The condition creates an immune response to gluten. This reaction is such that it damages the small intestine of sufferers, creating gastrointestinal distress (stomach cramps, diarrhoea, and bloating) and nutritional deficiencies, weight loss and fatigue. In untreated cases it can lead to intestinal cancer, infertility and osteoporosis.
Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity is even more common. It creates similar symptoms to those of coeliac disease, without damage to the intestine.
It is difficult to recognise both gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity as symptoms can be different from one individual to the next. Gastrointestinal pain, fatigue, anemia, abdominal discomfort, bloating, excess gas or joint pain are amongst the many symptoms that can suggest gluten intolerance or sensitivity.
If you suspect that you may suffer from gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity, consult your GP. Specialised blood tests examining antigliadin antibodies, endomysial antibodies, and anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies are available to screen for these conditions. Sometimes a small intestinal biopsy is required for accurate testing for coeliac disease.
At the present time, the only available treatment to coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity is a gluten-free diet. Following a gluten-free diet requires careful meal planning and thorough nutritional understanding, as gluten-free foods are often nutrient-deficient.
Unless you are gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive, you’d be wise to not buy into hype surrounding the gluten-free diet. You may be far better off following a balanced diet consisting of fruit, vegetables, lean protein (preferably from vegan and vegetarian sources) and pulses, nuts and grains.