Is going gluten-free good for you?
According to Mintel, 8 percent of adults say they avoid gluten as part of a 'healthy lifestyle'.
It’s true that eating gluten can lead to serious health problems for people with coeliac disease. But can switching to a gluten-free diet have benefits for everyone?
What causes a reaction to gluten?
Possible causes of a bad reaction to gluten include an allergy, an intolerance and an autoimmune disease.
Coeliac disease is a serious, lifelong genetic digestive condition in which the immune system attacks itself when gluten is eaten, damaging the lining of the small intestine. As a result of this, the body cannot properly absorb nutrients from food. Coeliac disease is not a food allergy or intolerance – it is an autoimmue disease. There is no cure and you must follow a gluten-free diet for life, even if your symptoms are mild. Reported cases of coeliac disease are two to three times higher in women than men.
A wheat allergy is a reaction to one element within wheat (not gluten), and usually occurs within seconds of eating. If you have a wheat allergy, you may still be able to eat barley and rye, and you may get a reaction from gluten-free products if they contain other parts of the wheat.
Reports of gluten intolerance are more common than occurances of coeliac disease or wheat allergy. Gluten intolerance does not involve the immune system, is not genetic and does not seem to damage the gut. There is some debate about whether gluten is to blame, or whether other components that are removed from the diet when people stop eating gluten-containing ingredients are the culprits. For example, if you cut gluten out of your diet you'll often cut out refined carbs by default, and the health benefits you experience may be connected more to this. Food intolerance (or 'non-coeliac gluten sensitivity') symptoms tend to come on more slowly than allergy symptoms, often hours after eating.
Who really has a food allergy?
Although many people are self-diagnosing coeliac disease, a wheat allergy or gluten intolerance, experts think milder cases of coeliac disease often go undiagnosed.
If you're experiencing symptoms, it's important to rule out coeliac disease by being tested, especially if you have a family history of it.
According to the NHS, continuing to eat gluten can lead to serious complications for those with the disease, including osteoporosis, iron-deficiency anaemia, and vitamin B12- and folate-deficiency anaemia.
Less common and more serious complications include some types of cancers. Coeliac UK research finds the average time it takes to be diagnosed is 13 years.
Risks of a gluten-free diet
For most people, eating a gluten-free diet won’t provide any health benefit. What’s more, unnecessarily following a gluten-free diet may have dangers for health unless you pay close attention to nutrition.
Wholegrain wheat, barley and rye contain the bran, germ and endosperm of the grain and therefore contain gluten. They are high in nutrition, including fibre, iron, B vitamins and calcium.
Products that have had the gluten removed are made with refined grains. The refined grain only contains the endosperm and is therefore much less nutritious. If you’re thinking of going gluten-free, it’s important to eat more naturally gluten-free grains, such as quinoa and buckwheat, instead of these refined foods.
The growth of gluten-free marketing has resulted in booming profits for the industry, and some of the products have been accused of being high in fat and calories.
Where is gluten hiding?
Pastries, cakes, biscuits and breads are all widely known to contain gluten, but it hides in many everyday food items.
- Breakfast – most breakfast cereals will contain some wheat and gluten. Try porridge oats, corn flakes and granola, but always check the label.
- Sauces – gluten can be found in chicken, beef or vegetable stocks plus soy sauces, other sauces including gravies, marinades, ketchup, mayonnaise and salad dressings. Always check the label. Also be careful to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen.
- Numerous snacks contain gluten, including many crisps. Look for popcorn, plain nuts and seeds and gluten-free crisps, but always check the label.
- Certain alcoholic drinks such as beer, ale, light beer and hard liquors can be made using grains that contain gluten. Sherry, Port and liqueurs are suitable for people with coeliac disease and there are gluten-free beers, lagers and stouts, but always check the label.
- Grains such as couscous, bulgur wheat and semolina are not gluten-free. Try quinoa in place of couscous or bulgur wheat and polenta or ground rice instead of semolina.