Chances are you know someone who is avoiding gluten. You may even be avoiding gluten yourself!
With the ‘wellness’ industry spruiking claims about the many benefits of gluten-free diets, the popularity of gluten-free grains and availability of gluten-free products, it’s no surprise that the amount of people avoiding gluten has increased in recent years.
But what is gluten anyway, and is there evidence behind all the gluten-free fuss?
What is gluten?
You may or may not be surprised to know that gluten is a type of protein.
Gluten is found naturally in wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt. It describes the storage proteins (‘prolamins’ and ‘glutelins’) in these grains. Each prolamin is called something different. The wheat prolamin is called gliadin, while the barley prolamin is called hordein, rye is called secalin, and oat is called avenin.
Gluten has an important role in baking. It gives elasticity to dough, helps it to rise and gives gluten-containing products their delicious chewy texture!
You will find gluten in a wide range of foods, including breads, cereals, pizza, cakes, biscuits, crackers, processed meats, ready to eat meals and soups, sauces and desserts.
Coeliac disease is a serious auto-immune condition that affects 1 in 70 Aussie’s (though the majority don’t yet know it!).
It is triggered by the consumption of gluten in susceptible individuals, causing an inflammatory reaction and damage to the small intestine. As a result, the tiny finger like projections (villi) in the bowel become inflamed and flattened. Think of it like a lawn mower getting to work in the small intestine.
Symptoms of coeliac disease vary greatly, with some people experiencing severe symptoms and others having no obvious symptoms at all. Symptoms include gut symptoms (e.g. diarrhoea, abdominal pain, vomiting), weight loss, fatigue, mineral/vitamin deficiencies, bone and joint pain and skin rashes.
A definite diagnosis is absolutely essential for coeliac disease. It is a lifelong condition with serious health outcomes if it is not managed appropriately. A small bowel biopsy is important for confirmation of the condition – a blood test won’t cut it.
If you are diagnosed with Coeliac disease, a lifelong gluten-free diet is the only treatment. This will likely result in a happier gut, improved nutrient absorption, improved weight maintenance, reduced inflammation and improved energy levels. The bright side of the growing gluten-free trend is the boom in options now available for those who need them.
Gluten sensitivity is an new concept, and it is not always well understood. It describes a set of symptoms people attribute to gluten – including diarrhoea, constipation, bloating and abdominal pain. It is important that you rule out other potential medical issues with your doctor, and discuss the best course of treatment.
Just because you feel better when you exclude gluten may not mean you are sensitive to gluten – it could be a number of other factors. Malabsorption of a fermentable sugars (known as FODMAPs) may be the cause. In particular – wheat fructans (sugars found in wheat/rye/barley) may be the cause. Many gluten-free products exclude this wheat fructan, which is why many people feel better when avoiding gluten.
The dark side to avoiding gluten
People may reduce gluten in their diet owing to beliefs that this will result in better general health, and reduce conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity. The evidence for this is lacking – and if anything, in opposition to.
Studies suggest gluten intake does not have significant negative affects on weight gain, diabetes or heart disease. Furthermore, limiting gluten is likely to mean reducing cereal fibre, beneficial wholegrains, vitamins and minerals that may reduce risk of diabetes and heart disease, and assist with weight control. Additionally, gluten-free products often have added salt, sugar and fat, to make up taste/texture due to the removed gluten. Not to mention that specialised gluten-free products are most often more costly then their gluten containing counterparts.
Last but not least, being required to avoid gluten can – to put it plainly – suck big time. Removing foods that you previously loved can be challenging at best. So, if you are lucky enough to have no issues with gluten – embrace how great it is that you can enjoy a range of beautiful gluten-containing foods, that can not only improve your health but your mind too.
The bottom line:
Gluten is not the bad guy.
Unless you have been diagnosed with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, avoiding gluten is not necessary. Nor is it a healthier choice.
In saying this – naturally gluten-free grains can and should absolutely be a part of a healthy diet. Whether consuming or not consuming gluten, the principles of a healthy diet are the same – include a variety of wholegrains, fruit, veg, legumes, lean protein and dairy.
By: Ellie Wiltshire
Image sourced from Pinterest.
- Coeliac Australia 2017, The Gluten Free Diet, Coeliac Australia.
- Lambert, K, Ficken, C 2015, Cost and affordability of a nutritionally balanced gluten-free diet: Is following a gluten-free diet affordable?, Nutrition and Dietetics, vol. 73, no. 1, pp. 36-42.
- Lebwohl, B, Cao, Y, Zong, G, Hu, F, Green, P, Neugut, A, Rimm, E, Sampson, L, Dougherty, L, Giovannucci, E, Willett, W, Sun, Q & Chan, A 2017, Long term gluten consumption in adults without celiac disease and risk of coronary heart disease: prospective cohort study, BMJ, p.357.
- Zong, G, Lebwohl, B, Hu, F, Sampson, L, Dougherty, L, Willett, W, Chan, A, Sun, Q 2017, Associations of gluten intake with type 2 diabetes risk and weight gain in three large prospective cohort studies of US men and women, American Heart Association, vol. 135, no. 1