In August, the Medical Journal of Australia published an article questioning the existence of non-coeliac gluten or wheat sensitivity. The article was hot media fodder, with most stories including a medical expert suggesting that most people avoiding gluten without being diagnosed with celiac disease didn’t need to do so. The article also concluded that gluten-free diets carry risks, are socially restricting and are costlier. We were glad to see this article published and pleased to see this issue being raised because we’ve being saying something similar for years.
While a gluten free diet is the only treatment for people with coeliac disease, there are many that claim going gluten-free is the magic bullet to weight loss and optimum health for everyone. While there is no good evidence to back this up and a growing number of studies now suggesting it might have adverse effects in the long run, the marketing horse has already bolted and gluten-free foods are a large and growing category. We thought we’d take a closer look at them.
Gluten is a stretchy protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, oats, barley and triticale. This protein gives bread the ability to rise and form a light airy loaf. Gluten-free food alternatives are often made with starches and additives rather than wholegrain flours. It is perhaps no surprise that one review found that gluten-free diets are often lower in fibre and higher in saturated fat. This review also noted that gluten-free diets tend to have a higher glycemic index (GI). This is not helpful for overall metabolic health and may leave you feeling hungrier sooner.
We compared the nutritional value of a muesli bar, mixed grain bread, and a flaked breakfast cereal compared with their gluten-free variants.
Because the serve sizes aren’t the same, it’s hard to make direct comparisons about kilojoules/calories, but there’s not a lot in it. Two significant differences stand out. When it comes to protein, regular trumps gluten free by a significant margin. The same goes for dietary fibre (something most of us need a lot more of).
The down sides of gluten-free
Another factor to consider is the glycemic index (GI) of food. While the glycemic index of the bread we refer to above has not been tested, another similar gluten-free multigrain bread on the market was found to have a high GI (79). Many regular wholegrain breads have a low-medium GI, including this one with a low GI (53). Low GI foods give you more stable blood glucose levels following your meal.
Gluten-free diets tend to be low on grains that are an important source of B vitamins. For example, folate is essential prior to and during pregnancy to help reduce the risk of neural tube defects, and folate is also important for heart health.
Studies have shown that eating wholegrains regularly protects against type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. Avoiding gluten unnecessarily in the pursuit of good health may have the opposite effect.
The un-plugged truth
- The gluten-free diet is essential for people with celiac disease, but unlikely to be of benefit for the rest of us.
- A gluten-free diet should only be undertaken after a confirmed diagnosis and best managed with the help of a qualified dietitian.
- Gluten-free foods can be less healthy: lower in protein and fibre, and higher GI.
Thanks to Rachel Ananin AKA TheSeasonalDietitian.com for her assistance with this article.
Nicole Senior Nicole Senior pulls the plug on hype and marketing spin to provide reliable, practical advice on food for health and enjoyment. She is an Accredited Nutritionist, author, consultant, cook, food enthusiast and mother who strives to make sense of nutrition science and delights in making healthy food delicious.
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