Should we be avoiding gluten?
These days if you are free of everything on pack, it sounds more appealing for some – what started as fat free and sugar free has evolved to dairy free, meat free, soy free, gluten free etc. There is nothing wrong with stating these things on packs, but the confusion arises when people associate being “free from” with being a healthier or safer option for all. The gluten-free market has grown rapidly and I’d be surprised if you have not seen a gluten-free sign or label while shopping in your local supermarket.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It contributes to the elasticity of foods (think of the stretchiness of dough). It can be found in various products and in many foods that you may not expect.
Why do people stay away?
Now, gluten is not an option for people with coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity.
For people with coeliac disease, gluten initiates an immune response that damages the gut lining - even a small amount of gluten can cause issues here. This can also lead to several issues such as poor nutrient absorption, infertility, nerve damage and osteoporosis.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity can result in similar symptoms to celiac disease but without damage to the gut. Also, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is another condition that is affected by gluten as the starch and sugars in the grains are easily fermented by gut bacteria. This can result in symptoms such as cramping, bloating and diarrhoea.
What are the implications of going gluten free?
In the instances of gluten intolerance, a gluten free diet is advised. However, switching to a gluten free diet “just because” may not be necessary and may cause you to miss out on some essential nutrients.
Many gluten free products appear low in vitamin B12, folate and minerals including iron, calcium and magnesium which are all essential to health.
Also, studies have found that following a gluten free diet may result in inadequate fibre intake. Fibre is useful to help us feel fuller for longer, maintain regular bowel movements and overall digestive health. It also contributes to improving blood sugar and cholesterol levels which can support the prevention of diabetes and heart disease. In the UK, fibre intake in adults is currently at approximately 18% yet recommendations state 30g a day.
So unless you need to follow a gluten free diet, there is no need to run away from it.
NHS (2018) How to get more fibre into your diet. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/how-to-get-more-fibre-into-your-diet/
Shepherd, S.J. & Gibson, P.R. (2013) Nutritional inadequacies of the gluten‐free diet in both recently‐diagnosed and long‐term patients with coeliac disease. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. 26(4) pp.349-358.
Vici, G., Belli, L., Biondi, M & Polzonetti, V (2016) Gluten free diet and nutrient deficiencies: A review. Clinical Nutrition. 35(6) pp.1236-1241.
Wild, D., Robins, G.G., Burley, V.J. & Howdle, P.D. (2010) Evidence of high sugar intake, and low fibre and mineral intake, in the gluten-free diet. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics. 32(4) pp.573-581.