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Why Gluten Free Doesn’t Mean A Healthier Choice

This week is Coeliac Awareness Week, a time to recognize the symptoms and consequences of coeliac disease and encourage those who may be experiencing symptoms to see their doctor and get tested.  Whilst a life-long gluten free diet is essential for those with diagnosed coeliac disease and for those who have a true gluten sensitivity or intolerance, the belief  that a gluten free diet is a healthier option for everyone is becoming more and more commonplace in the general public.

What is Gluten and Coeliac Disease?

Gluten is a type of protein found in grains such as barley, wheat, rye, spelt and oats.  If you have coeliac disease, you experience an immune reaction to this protein, which causes damage to the small intestine.   If this reaction remains untreated (i.e. if gluten continues to be consumed), the surface area of the small intestine is reduced and the body absorbs less nutrients from food.  This can lead to serious conditions such as osteoporosis and infertility over time.  Other symptoms can include a wide range from tiredness and lethargy to bowel issues such as diarrhea.

For coeliacs, even the smallest amount of gluten can cause a reaction and must be eliminated from the diet.  For people without this condition however, there is no reason to avoid gluten containing foods and no health benefits are associated with cutting it out of the diet. Human beings have been eating gluten for hundreds of years and are well adapted to digest and process this form of protein with no difficulty.   Gluten free eating has become one of the latest trends in fad diets, with numerous celebrities and weight loss companies claiming avoiding gluten will help you not only lose weight, but protect you from harmful diseases, increase your energy levels and overall health.  However, there is simply no evidence to back this up.

Whilst low gluten or gluten free foods are flooding our cafes and supermarket shelves, (which incidentally is great for the true coeliacs, who now have a far wider range of foods to choose from), choosing gluten free does not always mean a healthier choice and in many cases may in fact have adverse effects on health and weight, not to mention our budget.  Eating gluten free is a personal choice, but it is important to think the decision through, make sure your diet is still balanced and realize that there is no scientific back-up supporting health benefits of gluten free diets in those without coeliac or gluten sensitivity.

Why a gluten free diet isn’t necessary if you do not have coeliac disease.  

1.  Gluten free foods are often higher in fat and sugar and lower in fibre than gluten containing alternatives.

Gluten free foods have become increasingly more appetizing over the years, but the fact remains that when a key component of a food is eliminated, other things need to be added to maintain its’ taste, appearance and shelf-life.  Fat and sugar are always good for improving taste and so many products that are normally low in fat and added sugar such as bread will contain much higher amounts (and therefore more calories), in their gluten free form. For this reason many people actually gain weight when they switch to gluten free products.   Gluten free breads are also often lower in fibre than one containing gluten.

2.  Gluten free foods are generally more expensive

A healthy diet containing gluten is likely to be much kinder to the wallet, leaving money to spend on other nutritious foods such as high quality fresh produce.  Given a gluten free diet is not likely to provide any health benefits for the majority of people, it may be worthwhile investing your money in something known to be beneficial to health, such as fruit and vegetables.

3.  Gluten free diets can cause people to eliminate food groups and miss out on valuable nutrition.

Many people embark on a gluten free diet without doing the necessary research and simply cut all gluten containing foods out of their diets.  Avoiding bread, pasta, cakes, biscuits and the huge variety of other gluten containing foods will probably result in weight loss, simply because you are eating less, however, it is also likely to mean you are missing out on key nutrients such as B vitamins, which are essential for energy, fibre and healthy fats from grains.  Avoiding gluten requires careful planning to make sure substitute foods are found that balance the diet and provide adequate nutrition.

4.  Gluten free cakes and biscuits are still cakes and biscuits.  

A cake or biscuit may be advertised as gluten free, but this does not make it any healthier or kinder to the waist line than the gluten containing version.  If eaten in excess, gluten free products will still result in weight gain.

5.  Being gluten free can be inconvenient

Most people with coeliac disease will assure you that if they could eat gluten they would.  No one wants to spend an extra half an hour in the supermarket checking labels, or quizzing the chef in a restaurant about how he cooks the chicken in case of cross-contamination with gluten.  It is not always easy to find a suitable options when dining out and coeliacs are often seen as fussy or annoying by people who are not aware of the health consequences of the disease.  The growing number of people following a gluten free diet for no medical reason also means that Coeliacs are not taken as seriously as they need to be and that people preparing of serving food are not as vigilant, as they are simply seen as just another picky customer.