An increasing number of people are going gluten-free without actually being diagnosed with coeliac disease – is gluten really bad for you?
Rustic focaccia, simple sourdough and delicious tagliatelle – there are few things I love more than devouring a plate of gluten goodness. In fact, if I could eat pizza every day, I would. Yet, for many, cutting gluten out of their diet is becoming increasingly common, with one in 10 people in the UK now avoiding gluten.
Of course, if you have coeliac disease – a serious autoimmune disorder – or you’ve been diagnosed with some form of gluten intolerance, then you should absolutely follow a strict gluten-free diet. But for those who aren’t coeliac sufferers – should the promotion of gluten-free diets be encouraged? There seems to be a wave of people avoiding gluten purely because they think it’s the latest wellness trend – and thanks to the booming ‘free-from’ market, they’ve decided that gluten must be bad for them because they’ve seen shelves full of gluten-free food at supermarkets. But is it?
“Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It is the component that gives elasticity to dough, helping it rise and keep its shape and often gives the final product a chewy texture,” says Bio-Kult’s nutritionist Rosie Millen. “Our diet is dominated by gluten foods – mostly bread and pasta, with Western diets eating around 5–20 grams per day – and it’s not problematic for everyone. Some of the benefits include the array of nutrients in the foods such as B vitamins, zinc, iron, and potassium and it is a good source of dietary fibre.”
“One of the reasons it made it to the headlines in recent years is because studies found that gluten triggers the release of a protein called zonulin, which is responsible for regulating the tight junctions in the gut,” explains nutritionist and gut health specialist Marilia Chamon, founder of Gutfulness Nutrition. “Tight junctions control what passes through the gut wall (in other words, how ‘leaky’ your gut is), an essential defence mechanism to keep us safe from harmful bacteria and toxins.”
“Despite being blamed for causing digestive symptoms, a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of individuals with self-reported non-coeliac gluten sensitivity found that fructans (a type of fermentable carbohydrate found in wheat) were to blame for gastrointestinal symptoms in individuals with IBS, not gluten,” she adds.
So, if you’re not highly sensitive to gluten, can a gluten-free or grain-free diet actually cause more harm than good?
Potentially, yes. “We need to ingest 25 grams of fibre per day so as fibre is found in gluten, eating a low-fibre diet is not really recommended,” says Millen. “We need fibre in the diet to encourage bowel movements, lower cholesterol levels and fuel the friendly bacteria that reside in our gut.”
“A gluten-free diet may negatively impact the composition of our gut microbiota as it lacks prebiotic fibre compared to a diet where wheat is present,” adds Chamon. “A recent study demonstrated that eating a gluten-free diet decreases the number of beneficial gut bacteria such as bifidobacterium and lactobacillus.”
Gluten-free substitute foods also tend to have more fat, more sugar and more salt than gluten-containing counterparts. “It can be confusing when shopping for ‘healthy’ gluten-free foods,” says Millen.
But there are plenty of naturally gluten-free foods that are great for us, including “rice, lentils, chickpeas, quinoa. If you need to, stock up on those rather than all the processed foods that claim to be gluten-free but are packed with a lot of unnecessary ingredients.”
Why then, if it’s not actually harmful to those without intolerances, are so many people boycotting it? Is it down to misinformation? Are people simply avoiding gluten because they think it might help with weight loss? Or their overall wellness?
Only 1% of the UK population actually have coeliac disease – and these people, of course, should follow a gluten-free diet. But for everyone else, following a gluten-free diet just for the sake of it is not advised.
“At present, we are far from knowing the true role of gluten in chronic health conditions and most likely it is not the consumption of gluten alone that will lead to the development of them,” says Chamon. “For those without a diagnosis of coeliac disease or wheat allergy it may be worth consulting with a qualified nutritionist before jumping into a gluten-free diet.”
“It comes down to the whole ‘not one diet fits all’ sentiment,” adds Millen. Her advice? “Experiment and monitor the results with a professional.”
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