Should you go gluten-free?
Gluten-free diets have been increasing in popularity over recent years, with an explosion of gluten-free foods on the market. At NND we find that many people are confused about gluten. Should you be avoiding it? Are gluten-free foods healthier? Will going gluten-free help you lose weight?
We discuss what gluten is, who needs a gluten-free diet and the pros and cons of going gluten-free.
Gluten is the protein found in grains including wheat, rye and barley. For those with coeliac disease, eating gluten causes an immune reaction in the small intestine, damaging the intestinal wall and reducing its ability to absorb nutrients from food. This not only leads to deficiencies of the essential vitamins and minerals needed for good health and normal growth and development but can also result in gut symptoms (such as bloating, wind and diarrhoea), weight loss and longer-term health problems such as osteoporosis, infertility and a higher risk of bowel cancer. For this reason, those with coeliac disease need to follow a lifelong strict gluten-free diet.
It may not be gluten….
While gluten is the known culprit in those with coeliac disease, there are others who don’t have this immune reaction but still appear to have an intolerance to gluten, and need to reduce the amount of gluten in their diet to reduce their symptoms. However many people who have digestive issues with gluten-containing foods may actually have a FODMAP sensitivity rather than gluten intolerance per-se (as most gluten-containing grains including wheat, rye and barley, are also high in FODMAPs). So if you have ruled out coeliac disease with your doctor, but still seem to have gut symptoms with these foods, it’s best to see an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) with expertise in this area who can help you accurately determine the cause (and treatment) of your symptoms.
The pros and cons of going gluten-free.
One positive aspect of a gluten-free diet is that it cuts out many processed foods as gluten is found in a wide range of packaged foods. However there’s an increasing range of gluten-free foods hitting the supermarket shelves, which despite usually being found in the ‘health food’ aisle are far from being health foods. In fact many are highly processed and some are particularly high in fat, added sugar and/or salt, ingredients that are naturally gluten-free! It’s also harder to get enough fibre on a gluten-free diet, and gluten-free diets cut out most wholegrains, which are linked with reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.
The majority of gluten-free foods also have a high glycemic index(including most varieties of gluten-free bread, pasta and crackers, as well as other gluten-free carbs such as potatoes and rice), which means they are more likely to cause spikes in blood glucose and insulin levels.
So if you don’t have coeliac disease then there’s little benefit to going gluten-free, and it may actually make it harder to manage your weight insulin resistance and diabetes. Gluten-free foods are also generally more expensive.
Healthy eating gluten-free
For those who need to follow a gluten-free diet, fortunately it isn’t all bad news. There are a number of naturally gluten-free low GI and higher fibre foods including:
- legumes (eg lentils, chickpeas, dried/canned beans)
- wholegrains such as quinoa and buckwheat
- lower GI varieties of rice (eg basmati and Sunrice Doongara)
- many fruits (including citrus, berries, apples and pears)
- lower GI starchy vegetables (including Carisma potato, corn, yam, taro, orange sweet potato and butternut pumpkin)
- some noodles (eg buckwheat soba noodles, bean thread noodles and Asian rice noodles – but keep them on the chewy, ‘al dente’ side)
While lower GI gluten-free breads, cereals, pasta and crackers are harder to find, choosing higher fibre, wholegrain varieties of these foods will help to maximise nutrition and fibre intake.
In summary: there are no benefits to going gluten-free if you don’t need to, and it may actually make it harder to eat a nutrient-rich diet and to manage your weight and health. For those who do need to go gluten-free, be mindful of eating too many highly processed gluten-free foods and stick to mostly naturally gluten-free foods including plenty of vegetables, legumes and gluten-free wholegrains for fibre.
March 13th to 20th is Coeliac Awareness Week, aimed at increase the awareness and diagnosis of coeliac disease in Australia. Coeliac disease is a serious medical illness, affecting 1 in 70 of the population. However, it is estimated that only 20 per cent of affected Australians are diagnosed. Find out more at www.coeliac.org.au