Is gluten-free good for you?
The rise in the number of gluten-free products on our supermarket shelves and the provision of gluten-free menu options in restaurants represents progress for those people who truly need them, such as those with coeliac disease. But there seems to be trend in the wider population towards going ‘gluten-free’ even if it isn’t a medical requirement.
Gluten is found in products made from wheat, rye and barley. Those people in the UK who are gluten intolerant have a medically prescribed diet, which is essential for their wellbeing, whilst people with a mild intolerance voluntarily reduce their gluten consumption. However, the question for the rest of us is, should we also be abandoning gluten because we’ve heard that it is bad for us?
As the Everyday Health website says, there are numerous anecdotal accounts of people who claim that they feel more energetic after going gluten-free, or by reducing their intake. However, apart from some initial weight loss, there is evidence that going gluten-free unnecessarily may have a detrimental effect on your health.
A study published in the September 2017 issue of “Digestive Diseases and Sciences” looked at the risk of heart disease and metabolic disorders amongst people following a gluten-free diet who don’t have coeliac disease. The findings indicated that people eating gluten-free products tended to have a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) but were at equal risk for heart or metabolic disorders as those eating gluten. The British Medical Journal backed up this assertion and said that gluten-free products did not protect against heart disease, as some people think.
Harvard Medical School agrees with this as well and one of the editors of Harvard Health wrote: “Lately it’s become hip to go gluten–free, based on little or no evidence other than testimonials in the media.” The article goes on to cite testimony from Dr. Daniel A. Leffler, director of clinical research at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, who said: “People who are sensitive to gluten may feel better, but a larger portion will derive no significant benefit from the practice. They’ll simply waste their money, because these products are expensive.”
And there is something else to consider, apart from the cost of buying gluten-free products: following a gluten-free diet isn’t simply a case of cutting out products that obviously contain wheat, barley or rye; you also have to watch out for the gluten hidden in soups, soy sauce and cooking sauces – it’s even in toothpaste!
If you go gluten-free you need to be extremely careful or you could suffer from nutritional deficiencies. Dr Leffler says that Western diets are deficient in fibre and that whole wheat is one of our main sources of it, so cut it out and there’s a problem. Obviously fibre is found in many other products, such as quinoa, brown rice, vegetables and legumes, but more effort is required to incorporate these in the daily diet.
From a medical perspective it would seem that giving up gluten is quite unnecessary unless you have coeliac disease, but reducing your intake of pasta, cakes and pizzas is a good thing, and that is about as ‘gluten-free’ as most of us need to go.