Gluten-free diets seem to be one of the most popular food trends going around, with more and more people jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon. In parallel, we’re seeing an increasing number of gluten-free products popping up on supermarket shelves.
In light of Coeliac Awareness week, we thought we’d delve a little deeper into whether the gluten-free food trend and see if it’s SCIENCE or PSEUDOSCIENCE.
Coeliac disease vs gluten intolerance
Coeliac (pronounced ‘see-le-ak’) disease is an immune condition, where the presence of even tiny amounts of gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats) can cause significant harm to the health of sufferers. Not only does exposure to gluten in coeliacs cause immense damage to the intestinal lining, it can even increase the risk to certain types of cancers.
Gluten intolerance, on the other hand, is an ‘emerging’ condition that causes an individual to react to gluten. Gluten intolerance is not an autoimmune condition and is usually not as severe as coeliac disease. Whilst some of the symptoms do crossover, little is currently known about gluten intolerance and at the moment we lack a diagnostic tool to be able to confirm an individual is gluten intolerant.
The Strange Cult Of Gluten Free
Over the past few years, something very strange has happened. A large number of people without coeliac disease have decided to adopt a gluten-free diet on the misguided belief that it is a path to improved health… (WTF)?
Coeliac disease affects less than 1.5% of the population, however, the latest National Health Survey revealed that more than 2.5% of the population are choosing to adopt a gluten-free diet. These statistics seem strange when you look at the nutritional comparisons of gluten-free vs gluten-containing products.
Whilst a strict gluten-free diet is the only medically recognised treatment for coeliac disease and thus essential to avoid negative side-effects, it begs the question – is this a healthier way of eating for the rest of the population?
Are gluten-free products even healthier?
- Gluten-free products are often highly refined and processed: Gluten is what gives breads that lovely soft, chewy texture. When gluten is therefore removed from foods such as flours and bread, they lose their soft, elastic texture. As you can imagine, bread without gluten would therefore not be very palatable. In order to achieve a more palatable product, other ingredients are often added to gluten-free products, such as processed fibres and stabilising gums.
- Gluten-free products are not recommended for weight loss: You may have heard somewhere along the grapevine that avoiding gluten and other grain-based foods can assist with weight loss. Well, if weight loss is the reason you’ve decided to go gluten-free, we’d strongly recommend you think twice! Despite the hype from tennis star Jokovic, who swears by his GF diet, gluten-free foods have around the same (if not more) kilojoules/calories, fat and carbohydrates as regular products. For those individuals who do find themselves losing weight when following a gluten-free diet, it’s likely the weight loss is is related to the fact that you have removed processed carbohydrate-based foods like biscuits and cakes, as opposed to removing gluten specifically from your diet.
- Gluten-free products often lack fibre: The majority of us require around 25-30g of fibre per day in order to maintain optimal bowel health. We know that most of the fibre in our diet comes from wholegrains like breads, cereals and pastas, which are usually made from wheat, oats, rye or barley. Therefore, choosing to adopt a gluten-free diet without a medical reason is likely to reduce your overall fibre intake, which can have negative side-effects. If you do have coeliac disease, we recommend seeking the advice of an Accredited Practising Dietitian to find out how to boost your fibre intake whilst remaining strictly gluten-free.
Despite the media hype, there is no evidence that adopting a gluten-free diet has any additional health benefits for those of us without coeliac disease or gluten intolerance. A gluten-free diet is restrictive, complex, expensive and time-consuming. And besides who would want to cut out bread, pasta and warm croissants if you don’t absolutely need to!
Looking for some healthy and nutritious meals, check out our recipes here.