Header image courtesy of @skitterphoto (via Pexels)
Brought to you by Bupa Global
As “gluten-free” increasingly gets thrown around in headlines and more gluten-free products have hit the shelves alongside promises of health and happiness, one has to wonder what the buzz is all about. But before you jump on the gluten-free bandwagon just for the sake of it, let’s take a step back and understand what gluten is, and how it might affect you. We consulted Dr Luke Powles from Bupa Health Clinics to explain to us all there is to know about going gluten-free!
In layman’s terms, gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Bread, cereals, and pasta typically contain high gluten levels, while many other foods may have small traces, including sauces, gravies, and alcohol. Gluten has proteins that act like a “glue” to help hold food together in the cooking process, which is why making gluten-free bread and cakes at home can be a challenge (gluten helps dough rise, for example). However, a greater awareness of coeliac disease and its related conditions in recent times means that there more and more gluten-free foods and resources are available than ever before1.
You’ve probably heard that individuals with coeliac disease should avoid gluten-containing products. But why? Dr Luke Powles explains, “When people with coeliac disease consume gluten, the immune system mistakes the gluten as a threat to the body and treats it like a virus or harmful bacteria. As such, it mounts an immune response, causing painful inflammation of the small intestines.” Some cases of coeliac disease can be mild, while others are more severe. Symptoms, too, can range widely. These include diarrhoea, abdominal pains, bloating, tiredness, and weight loss, along with reduced absorption of nutrients.
More and more people are cutting out gluten from their diet without any evidence of having coeliac disease or other medical conditions affected by gluten. If it’s not a dietary requirement relating to your well-being, is it worthwhile to go gluten-free in the first place? As Dr Luke Powles points out, “There has been an increase in gluten awareness, with some celebrities and athletes claiming gluten-free diets improve their health, help them lose weight, and increase their energy levels.” These claims may sound great and all, but there is actually no strong scientific evidence to back them up—meaning that some people may be embracing a gluten-free lifestyle when there’s little to no benefit for them in the short or long run.
While gluten is of low nutritional value, it is not always advisable to cut out gluten completely. Cutting out gluten may lead to a lower intake of important nutrients like iron and certain vitamins (especially some B vitamins), as a lot of gluten-free commercial foods don’t have these. Instead—and not for the better—you may be increasing your consumption of sugar, carbohydrates, and unwanted fats, all in a bid to help to replicate the effects of naturally occurring gluten.
People who do have coeliac disease should skip gluten, of course, but should anyone else go gluten-free? As per Dr Powles, there is some evidence to suggest that a gluten-free diet can benefit people with other conditions, including non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), irritable bowel syndrome2 (mainly the diarrhoea-dominated subtype), rheumatoid arthritis3, multiple sclerosis (MS)4, and other autoimmune disorders. There may be a link between autoimmune disorders and gluten5 so if you are worried that you’re affected, visit your doctor for antibody and blood tests to help pinpoint potential problems6.
As always, embarking on a new diet should be done carefully and with professional help. If you are considering cutting gluten out of your diet, Dr Powles recommends checking with your GP to identify whether it can produce benefits for your well-being. After that, seek the advice of a dietician, who can help plan out a well-balanced diet, supplemented with research facts and tips from reputable online sources like the Bupa Coeliac Guide. One thing Dr Powles advises is to “be wary about cutting out too many things at once. Some people cut out both gluten and lactose at the same time and quite often end up constipated.” In other words, always take a sensible approach to adapting your diet—if you’re in any doubt, always talk to an expert.
Still confused about coeliac disease? We set the record straight for you by busting some common myths about this oft-misunderstood disease!
Myth: Coeliacs go gluten-free because of an intolerance or allergy.
It’s neither of these things. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition that you either have or you don’t. When a sufferer eats gluten, the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy tissue in the small bowel.
Myth: An upset stomach is the only symptom.
While cramps, nausea, bloating and vomiting are common symptoms, sufferers may also experience hair loss, mouth ulcers, rashes, fatigue, and headaches7.
Myth: You have to be underweight to have a problem with gluten.
People who suffer from gluten sensitivities or intolerances often have a normal body weight when they’re diagnosed—so don’t assume weight has anything to do with it8.
Myth: All gluten-free food is healthy.
Not all gluten-free food is particularly healthy. In fact, some processed varieties are made with large amounts of sugar and fat.
1. Benzinga, last accessed in August 2020
2. US National Library of Medicine, last accessed in August 2020
3. Arthritis Foundation, last accessed in August 2020
4. Healthline, last accessed in August 2020
5. Huffington Post, last accessed in August 2020
6. Healthline, last accessed in August 2020
7. Bupa UK, last accessed in August 2020
8. Coeliac UK, last accessed in August 2020