After being confined to health-food stores for years, gluten-free foods now show up everywhere. They are frequently perceived as a healthier alternative, because of an apparent alignment with a “wellness lifestyle”. People have been switching to gluten-free diets to lose weight, boost energy and generally feel healthier, but is there scientific evidence to support this?
Before I give you my take on this debate, let me briefly explain what gluten is
What is gluten?
Gluten is a family of proteins found in grains such as wheat, rye, spelt and barley. Of the gluten-containing grains, wheat is by far the most commonly consumed. When flour is mixed with water, the gluten proteins form a sticky network with a glue-like consistency that makes the dough elastic. This elasticity is key to many baked products, for example, giving bread the ability to rise when baked. It also provides a chewy, satisfying texture.
Who should avoid gluten?
Most people process gluten without issue, however, it can cause problems (such as bloating, diarrhoea, cramps or abdominal pain) for people with certain health conditions. These conditions include celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy and some other diseases. There are also some people who do not test positive for celiac disease, but still react negatively to gluten. This condition is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For those who can’t tolerate gluten, the abundance of gluten free product now available both in shops and in restaurants is a blessing.
So should the rest of us also avoid gluten? Are gluten free diets healthier?
Many people think gluten-free food is healthier e.g. lower in calories, lower in fat, etc. but that’s not always the case. There are many gluten-free products on the supermarket shelves or in your local cafe that are just as unhealthy as their wheat-based counterparts. Just because a cake or biscuit uses a gluten free flour does not mean that it doesn’t contain just as much sugar, fat or calories than a non gluten free cake or biscuit would.
Potato starch or rice starch, the most common gluten free alternatives to wheat, are not nutrient dense foods and can be seriously lacking in certain essential nutrients, especially fibre, iron, zinc, many of the B vitamins, and calcium. These are all nutrients found in beneficial amounts in whole grains containing gluten. Fibre is especially important, as it helps to control blood sugar levels (reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes), lower cholesterol levels (reducing your risk of heart disease) and helps to prevent/alleviate some digestive issues. Fibre is also a nutrient many of us don’t get enough of. For more information on the benefits of fibre, check out Fabulous Fibre.
For people who only eat foods that are inherently gluten-free, like fruits, vegetables, gluten-free whole grains (such as spelt, brown rice, wild rice, oats*, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, sorghum, bulgur, semolina and faro), lean protein, healthy fats, eating a gluten-free diet can be a healthy diet. But if gluten-containing products are replaced with highly processed gluten-free foods like pastries, energy bars, etc., then you may in fact gain weight as many gluten free foods are higher in calories than their gluten-containing replacements.
So for people who are able to tolerate gluten, there seems to be no evidence to support claims that a strict gluten-free diet is beneficial for health
*Oats themselves are gluten free, but it’s important to note that you need to get oats that haven’t been processed through the same machines as wheat. This results in gluten contamination of the oats.
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