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Going gluten-free

3 min read
Sensitivity to gluten has many avoiding foods containing this ingredient. However, for those who don’t fall into that category, is it beneficial to remove these items from their diet?

Once only available at healthfood stores, gluten-free products can now be seen dotting supermarket shelves. Kourtney Kardashian, Katy Perry and Miranda Kerr are some celebs who adhere to a gluten-free diet. A significant number of individuals following this regimen do so in the belief that it is a healthier way of eating. However, they may actually be barking up the wrong tree.

For those not in the know, gluten is a natural protein that occurs commonly in grass-related grains such as wheat and its derivatives like semolina and durum, barley, rye and triticale (a cross between rye and barley). It is an integral component of wheat-containing foods like breads, cereals and pastas. It can also be extracted, concentrated and added to food and other products for texture and flavour.

Who it is for
People with celiac disease should avoid gluten. Celiac disease is a disorder where an immune response is triggered in the small intestine upon consumption of gluten. Over time, this reaction damages the small intestine’s lining and prevents it from absorbing nutrients.

Some non-celiacs may also feel unwell after consuming gluten-containing food. They may experience bloating, diarrhoea, headaches or skin rashes. However, this could also be a reaction to poorly digested carbohydrates, not just gluten, which ferment in the gut. Gluten could also be detrimental to those with wheat allergy and gluten ataxia, a rare neurological autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack parts of the brain in response to gluten.

For these groups, a gluten-free diet is the way to go. Besides avoiding biscuits, cakes, pizza, pasta and beer, they would also have to look out for the presence of gluten in other products like soy sauce, salad dressings and meat substitutes.

Why it’s not healthier
However, if you don’t have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, abstaining from gluten is not necessarily healthier. Doing so could result in nutritional deficiencies as you would be missing out on whole grains, fibre and micronutrients. Including sufficient whole grains in your diet is especially important if you’re at risk for heart disease or diabetes as they can lower cholesterol levels and even help regulate blood sugar. Some gluten-containing foods are sources of important vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins, iron and magnesium.

On top of that, processed gluten-free foods tend to contain high amounts of unhealthy ingredients such as sodium, sugar and fat. Consuming these foods can lead to weight gain, blood sugar swings, high blood pressure and other problems. Several studies have detected a trend towards weight gain and obesity among those who follow a gluten-free diet (including those with celiac disease). When compared to equivalent wheat-based foods they show deficiencies in minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc, and in vitamins such as B12, D and folate as well as significantly reduced fibre. A 2013 study of both recently diagnosed and chronic celiac patients adhering to a gluten-free diet found nutritional deficiencies of each of these nutrients in both populations.

Gluten-free foods are a lot more expensive than conventional ones. There is no strong evidence that suggests a gluten-free diet will improve health or prevent disease if you are not celiac and are able to eat foods containing gluten without any problems. If you suspect you might be celiac, you should check with a doctor and get tested for it before embarking on a gluten-free regimen.

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