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 a gluten-free diet really is a healthier choice for those without coeliac disease or an intolerance to gluten?
Coeliac disease vs gluten intolerance
Coeliac (pronounced ‘see-le-ak’) disease is an immune condition, whereby the body reacts to gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats) as an invader. The body responds by initiating an attack on gluten, which can cause inflammation in different parts of the body, namely the small bowel. Due to this widespread damage, symptoms can include stomach upsets, fatigue, bowel troubles and skin reactions. 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.
Whilst a strict gluten-free diet is the only medically recognised treatment for coeliac disease and thus essential to avoid negative side-effects, it isn’t necessarily the healthiest option for the general population. Coeliac disease affects less than 1.5% of the population, however, the latest National Health Surveyrevealed 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.
Gluten-free products are often highly refined and processed
When gluten is removed from foods such as flours and bread, they lose their soft, elastic texture. In order to achieve a palatable product, other refined properties are often added, such as processed fibres and stabilising gums.
Gluten-free products are not recommended for weight loss
You may have heardalong 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 starJokovic, 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 extra kilojoules from 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.
Research has found gluten-free products appeal to consumers as they are perceived as being “natural” or “healthier” foods, and manufacturers are creating products that pander to this perception. 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.
Looking for some healthy and nutritious meals, check out our recipes here.