Fact: Only people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance are better off eating gluten-free foods – and some gluten-free foods aren’t so healthy.
The range of gluten-free food products has exploded in recent years and now widely available in supermarkets. While this is great news for sufferers of coeliac disease and gluten intolerance, the numbers just don’t add up. Since coeliac disease affects only 1% of the population, either there has been an explosion of gluten intolerance or there are lots of people buying these products who don’t have a diagnosable problem with gluten. It appears that ‘gluten-free’ has become the latest health fad.
Where does this idea come from that gluten is somehow bad for us? Dietitians commonly point the finger at naturopaths and other alternative health practitioners who recommend exclusion of wheat and gluten almost as a matter of course. Then the word-of-mouth message starts to spread. A growing number of consumers believe gluten-free foods are healthier and start to buy gluten-free foods by choice. More products become available to meet demand, the diet becomes easier to follow, more people buy them because they’re there, and the trend takes hold.
It doesn’t make sense that wheat (the most common source of gluten in the diet) would be somehow harmful. Wheat has been cultivated since 9000BC, is grown worldwide, and is the world’s third largest produced grain crop used to make a huge range of staple foods including leavened bread, flat breads, pasta and noodles.
Imagine not being able to eat regular bread, pasta, breakfast cereal, biscuits, crisp bread, cakes, thickened sauces and even beer? Wheat and other gluten-containing grains are almost ubiquitous in our Western-style food culture. The gluten-free diet has a high degree of difficulty, so why would you follow it unless you absolutely had to? In additition, a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition has shown reduced numbers of friendly gut bacteria and reduced immune function in people following a gluten-free diet.
However the real issue is the gluten-free products themselves. Many are highly processed and based on high GI ingredients such as rice and potato and some have lots of added saturated fat and sugar to enhance palatability, especially in the sweet biscuit, bar and cake category. Few products are based on wholegrain versions of gluten-free grains, even though they are healthier.
For those of you with symptoms of coeliac disease such as abdominal pain, diarrhoea, lethargy and iron deficiency, don’t self diagnose and put yourself on a gluten free diet. See your doctor first for a definitive diagnosis through blood test and intestinal biopsy (following a gluten free diet before diagnosis of coeliac disease can actually prevent a correct diagnosis being made).
If your symptoms are not due to coeliac disease, but you suspect food is somehow the cause, see a registered dietitian (an APD in Australia) with experience in food intolerance to identify the real dietary culprits and create a personalised diet for you to manage your symptoms.
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