It’s pretty hard to walk into a shop or restaurant these days and not see a section of the aisle or menu dedicated to ‘gluten-free’ options. It´s great that we’re catering to people who have a limited diet, but unless you have coeliac disease – is gluten even bad for you and should you really be restricting your intake? Many think going gluten-free is a healthy choice, like eating more veggies or drinking less alcohol. But guess what? It isn’t. And this diet fad could be doing you more harm than good…
What is coeliac disease?
This is an autoimmune disease meaning that the body fights itself when it encounters certain triggers, in this case gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley and rye). This means that, when a patient ingests gluten, it destroys the lining of the gut. It affects 1% of the UK population, though only about 1 in 4 are diagnosed. Those affected experience symptoms including severe diarrhoea and vomiting lasting hours to days. The reaction also prevents the effective uptake of other nutrients. This can lead to nutritional deficiencies, anaemia and osteoporosis.
Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity shares some of its symptoms with coeliac disease, but is not an autoimmune disorder and does not damage the intestinal tract. Coeliac disease is not just a food allergy or intolerance. It can be diagnosed with a simple blood test to check for the presence of antibodies to gluten, and may sometimes manifest as a skin condition called dermatitis herpetiformis.
There is no cure for coeliac disease. Symptoms and long-term health risks can be avoided by following a strict and life-long gluten-free diet. However, if you don’t suffer from coeliac disease, there really is no indication there are any health benefits to this diet whatsoever. In fact, a new study shows that limiting your gluten intake could simultaneously reduce the amount of whole grains you consume. Dietary fibre from these whole grains may actually have a mild protective effect against heart disease, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes – so cutting these out could increase your risk.
Long-term dietary consumption of gluten is not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, and abstaining from the protein can reduce your ingestion of other whole grains. The promotion of gluten-free diets among people without coeliac disease should therefore not be encouraged.
So why do people insist they feel better after going gluten-free? Truth is, there could be dozens of explanations. Often, this diet is accompanied by replacing carbohydrates with more vegetables and fruits, or just eating more healthily and watching what you eat in general.
Unless you have a medical condition that specifically prevents you from digesting it – gluten is not your enemy. There is little reason to restrict your diet, as doing so may also result in a reduced intake of beneficial whole grains.
Click here for NHS information about coeliac disease.
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Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his/her affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing. All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of the sample surveyed. An online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.
Sources and Further Reading
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