Dr Chris Steele MBE talks about coeliac disease and a gluten free diet on The Best of Health.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale, which helps certain foods to hold their shape. It can be found in many different foods – most commonly bread, baked goods, pasta, beer and cereal. For those with coeliac disease – a digestive condition which causes an adverse reaction to gluten – it must be avoided.
Interestingly, gluten-free diets are becoming increasingly popular amongst people who don’t have this intolerance. Many believe that going without gluten is good for their health. But is this type of diet really beneficial?
What Are The Negative Effects of Gluten?
If you have coeliac disease, consuming gluten is bad for your health. It will trigger an immune response which causes the body to mistakenly attack healthy tissue, disrupting your body’s ability to properly absorb nutrients from food. You’ll experience symptoms such as diarrhoea, abdominal pain, bloating and fatigue.
For those without the condition, there’s no reason not to eat gluten. If you do experience negative symptoms which you believe are linked to gluten intake, you most likely have an intolerance. There’s been plenty of research into the effects of gluten, and there is no solid evidence to suggest that gluten has any harmful impact on people who do not have coeliac disease or some other form of intolerance.
In studies where gluten consumption has been linked to minor negative effects, such as bloating, the outcomes could just as easily have been caused by other ingredients in those foods. For example, a 2011 study at Monash University in Australia linked gluten to bloating and fatigue, but follow-up research led to the conclusion that these effects were simply caused by excessive consumption of certain carbohydrates.
What Are The Positive Effects of Gluten?
Gluten itself doesn’t offer any special nutritional benefits, but the many wholegrains which contain gluten do. They’re rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins and iron, as well as fibre. This beneficial mixture of nutrients is great for digestion and has a positive impact on your general health. Research has shown that wholegrain foods, when eaten as part of a healthy diet, may even help to lower your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
What Are The Risks of Going Gluten-Free?
For those with coeliac disease, going gluten-free is essential, but for those who don’t it can actually have a negative impact on your health. Completely removing gluten from your diet would mean changing it completely. There are a lot of foods you would have to give up, and any time you eliminate whole food categories you’ve been used to eating, you run the risk of nutritional deficiencies. You would have to give up the vast majority of breads, breakfast cereals, crackers, pastas, baked goods and even a wide range of processed foods which are made with small amounts of gluten. It would be difficult for you to adequately replace all the essential nutrients you’d be cutting out, so unless you have coeliac disease, it’s generally not worth the risk.
One of the major reasons gluten-free diets have become more popular recently is the endorsement of celebrities. Gaynor Bussell, a dietitian and spokesperson for the Association for Nutrition, says that many people have been “duped by popular but poorly informed celebrities and media.” When the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow talk about how going gluten-free has changed their lives, it encourages a large number of people to try this type of diet themselves. The demand for gluten-free products goes up, so supermarkets stock more of them to meet consumer demand. The problem is, too many blindly follow this food trend without knowing how much they are disrupting the balance of their diets.
If you do decide to cut gluten from your diet, it’s important that you learn how to do so in a healthy way. Consider how valid your reasons for wanting to gluten-free are, do your research on the subject, and weight up the pros and cons. If you think you have any gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhoea or abdominal pain, discuss them with your doctor who can assess whether you may have coeliac disease or some other form of gluten intolerance. If you do not have any health problems but still want to go gluten-free, talk to a dietician to make sure you continue to get all the nutrients you need.