The low down on gluten
Eating gluten-free has become trendier than ripped jeans and white sneakers, with gluten free foods exploding onto our supermarket shelves and café menus. The words “gluten free” are often touted as healthy, giving a ‘health halo’ to unhealthy foods such as cakes and biscuits.
So what exactly is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. It’s microscopic and makes up part of the grain.
Avoiding gluten is essential for people with coeliac disease, but this condition is not as common as you may think. Approximately 250,000 Australians have coeliac disease (1%), though only one in five will know they have it (the others remain undiagnosed). When someone with coeliac disease eats a gluten containing food, it causes inflammation, damages the lining of the intestines and over time, can lead to poor nutrition, osteoporosis and cancer. For people with coeliac disease, symptoms do no correlate with damage, so they may have only mild symptoms such as bloating, but still be at risk of the above. That is why lifelong avoidance of gluten with a strict gluten free diet is essential.
Diagnosing coeliac disease is done by taking a biopsy (removing a very small piece of tissue) from the small intestine, and is never diagnosed on symptoms alone.
There’s no doubt that many people experience gastrointestinal symptoms without having coeliac disease. A common cause for this is wheat sensitivity. Wheat can cause issues as it also contains fructans, which are a form of fibre that our gut bacteria go crazy on, producing excess gas in the intestine and leading to flatulence, bloating and altered bowel habits for some people.
While wheat does contain gluten, the over-avoidance of all gluten-containing foods is unnecessarily restrictive for these people.
Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity
When avoidance of wheat does not alleviate symptoms, a diagnosis of gluten sensitivity is often a fallback. Although avoiding gluten may improve things for sufferers, there is insufficient evidence that it is the gluten causing the problem. This is due to the complexity of grains themselves, and that different proteins in the grains could be causing issues. Much more research is needed in this area.
There is also a lot of reports out there that gluten can cause all sorts of other nasty conditions, from autism to cancer, and that avoiding gluten can aid weight loss. There is no credible evidence that proves these links. There is in fact a multitude of research proving that including grains as part of a healthy diet assists weight loss efforts.
Following a strict gluten free diet is not easy and requires the help of dietitian. Not only is gluten in obvious wheat products, but is also in many packaged foods where wheat derivatives are used as thickeners, such as sauces, confectionery and convenience foods, as well as being present due to cross contamination during food preparation and cooking.
The bottom line is that gluten avoidance is a must for a small percentage of people, but avoiding gluten without a medical reason and proper dietetic advice can put you at risk of poor nutrition and diminish your weight loss efforts if careful consideration isn’t given.
Prepared by Kara Vogt – Accredited Practicing Dietitian