Why (and why not) to follow a gluten-free diet

Coeliac disease is a life-long autoimmune condition, caused by a reaction of the immune system to gluten. For the unlucky 1% of the population affected by the disease, gluten really is a no-go; just 50mg of the protein (about the amount in one small crouton) is enough to cause trouble. However, a gluten-free diet isn’t always the healthiest diet, and it’s certainly not the best option for everyone.

A recent YouGov poll revealed that 60% of adults have bought a gluten-free product and one household in ten – 2.7 million – contains someone who believes gluten is bad for them. So is the growth of the gluten-free food market greater than the actual need? Here’s a few reasons why (and why not) to follow a gluten-free diet:

1/100 people have coeliac disease

… but only 24% who have the condition have been diagnosed. This means there are nearly half a million people who have coeliac disease but don’t yet know, according to Coeliac UK. Symptoms include bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, wind, constipation, tiredness, sudden or unexpected weight loss, hair loss and anaemia – but don’t cut out the gluten just yet. Reducing the amount of gluten in your diet could prevent coeliac disease from being detected and diagnosed, so if you are experiencing symptoms it’s recommended that you continue to eat gluten and see your GP as soon as possible to test for coeliac disease.

Bloating

Bloating is a big reason why many people avoid gluten, and understandably so. Gluten intolerance is the digestive system’s inability to digest gluten, which results in bloating, gas, diarrhea, nausea, cramping and stomach pain. However, gluten sensitivity only affects a very small percentage of the population, meaning for many people, the bloating is likely to be down to something else. Fermentable, poorly absorbed short-chain carbohydrates (FODMAPs) are one such culprit, with onion and garlic two examples of ‘unfriendly’ foods – not just grains. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is also commonly mistaken with gluten sensitivity. This long-term gut disorder causes recurrent abdominal pain and disturbance of bowel movements, lasting a few days to a few months at a time, often during times of stress or after eating certain foods. The answer? Always check with your doctor and don’t be too quick to self-diagnose.

Weight loss

Switching to a gluten-free diet will not automatically make you lose weight. While it may stop reaching for the biscuit tin or accepting that slice of birthday cake, this is simply a case of willpower – something you don’t need to be on a gluten-free diet to exert.  What it will do is encourage you to try different food groups, and encourage you to think about what you’re eating and make healthier choices, i.e. switching a shop-bought white bread sandwich for a homemade quinoa salad. If you plan on carrying on with your normal diet using the gluten-free versions of your standard food types, you’re unlikely to notice any difference to your waistline.

Gluten-free doesn’t mean healthy

Chocolate, chips and potato crisps are all naturally gluten-free – and not exactly healthy either. What’s worse, without gluten to bind food together, food manufacturers often use more fat and sugar to make the product more palatable – so don’t be confused into thinking a gluten-free product is a diet product. Few gluten-free grain products are enriched with the vitamins and minerals of gluten-containing grain products, and going gluten-free can set you up for deficiencies in B vitamins, folate and iron. Ultimately it all comes down to eating a well-balanced diet – whether that be with or without gluten. 

It’s not easy

A gluten-free diet can be a burden. From soups, stocks and sausages to beer and baking powder, gluten is used in a number of processed foods and ingredients and you’ll need to read all labels, menus and ingredients lists carefully. What’s important is to concentrate on what you can have, rather than what you can’t. Wine, cider, sherry, spirits and liqueurs are all naturally gluten-free, as are grains such as quinoa, teff, amaranth, polenta, buckwheat, corn, millet and tapioca. Today there is also an abundance of quality gluten-free products available in high street supermarkets, ranging from pot noodles and pastries, to pizza, pasta and pies. Pretty much all restaurants and eateries now offer gluten-free menu options (or even whole menus), with most available at no extra cost. Which brings us onto…

The Price

Buying gluten-free products will generally cost you more. A study conducted by University of Wollongong researchers found that families on a gluten-free diet pay up to 17% more on average, with people paying as much as 500% more for gluten-free items such as flour, bread, cereals and sauces. The good news? Prices do seem to be gradually dropping and all supermarkets now offer own-brand free-from products at prices that won’t make your eyes water – Tesco’s, Morrison’s and Sainsbury’s all stocking 500g bags of free-from dried pasta for under £1.40. People diagnosed with coeliac disease can also receive prescriptions for gluten-free food, which can be dispensed by a local pharmacist. 

So, is it worth it?

For people with coeliac disease, absolutely. There is no cure for the disease but switching to a gluten-free diet should help control symptoms and prevent the long-term consequences. The science on non-coeliac gluten sensitivity is still evolving, and as yet no one has conclusively identified a physical explanation for gluten sensitivity and its array of symptoms. The only real solution is to eat what’s right for you. Gluten isn’t something to be scared of, and while the surge in popularity for free-from products is brilliant for those with a gluten-related condition, a gluten-free diet certainly isn’t the right choice for everyone. 

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