Gluten is a protein naturally found grains like wheat, rye, and barley. It also used as an additive in many carbohydrate-based foods like bread, pasta, and cereals, as the elastic properties of the gluten helps the foods to hold their shape.
Celiac disease is a very serious intolerance to gluten, causing inflammation and bleeding of the small intestine, stopping you from absorbing many of the nutrients which you eat. This irritation of the digestive system over a longer period can cause weight loss, anaemia, and numerous other deficiencies, definitely something to be avoided.
Thankfully, less than 1% of us actually have celiac disease, the only treatment of which is a permanent removal of gluten from the diet.
Once a useful tool for those who suffer from celiac disease, gluten-free diets have exploded in popularity. With the endorsement of countless celebrities and gurus, gluten-free products are now a booming industry and hold a permanent place in the bakery aisle of most supermarkets. Whilst this is great for the food choices of celiac sufferers, it is an obvious indication that more than 1% of us are concerned enough to look for gluten-free alternatives.
So, what is causing this surge in popularity? The most common reasons provided are:
- A general belief that gluten-free diets are healthier
- A growing number of people self-diagnosing as gluten-sensitive
- A greater awareness of gluten-free diets due to the greater availability of products and reporting in the media
Well, taking the first point first, there is no strong evidence showing that gluten has any negative health effects on non-celiac sufferers. Gluten is not an essential nutrient for health and many populations who use rice as their primary grain (such as in Asia) have naturally low gluten intake and are not particularly unhealthy. Nonetheless, there is nothing at all to support the views of those who proclaim gluten-free foods to be healthier.
Furthermore, gluten-free diets can actually cause a few problems. Whole grains are very high in essential minerals and nutrients, and removing these from the diet could lead to deficiencies in iron, calcium, fibre, folate, and more. Gluten-free products are often higher in fat, sugar, and calories than their alternatives, which is not great for our health or our waistlines.
When it comes to self-diagnosis of gluten-sensitivity, the truth is that you might as well choose which foods to remove based on lottery numbers. There are literally hundreds of elements in the diet which people can be sensitive to, often leading to the same symptoms of gut discomfort and bloating.
The only way to test for gluten-intolerance is to have your blood tested, so I would always recommend seeing a doctor before making any changes to your diet. If gluten-sensitivity is ruled out as a cause of irritation, then a low-FODMAP diet is the logical next step, but that is for another day.
The bottom line is that unless you have celiac disease, there is nothing to suggest that a gluten-free diet will make you any healthier. Plus, following a gluten-free diet unnecessarily could be damaging to your waistline, your health, and your wallet.