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Fad vs Fact: Is gluten really so bad for us?

September 9th 2016 / Anna Hunter


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It’s been blamed for everything from making us fat to triggering anxiety, but is gluten truly the dietary demon it’s been made out to be, and should we all be going against the grain where gluten is concerned?

With the likes of Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus publicly bad mouthing it, gluten has become fair game across the globe; it’s possibly got more haters than both of the aforementioned women combined. Is its ‘root of all evil’ reputation deserved? We gave dietician Dr Sarah Schenker a call on a quest for the truth about gluten and whether it’s really fair to point the finger at the much maligned protein…

“Aside from those who suffer from coeliac disease (1 in 100 of us worldwide), the main issue concerning gluten sensitivity is that we consume such an enormous amount of it on a daily basis. If you factor in cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner, plus a sprinkling of biscuits throughout the day, it’s not difficult to see how some people’s diets are almost 90% gluten based. That’s not a good stat for any balanced diet! For many people gluten rich foods are the default, standby choice, especially given our busy, modern lives, where convenience is key.”

It’s a common misconception that gluten is fattening

“Sure, gluten can be a harsh protein, and it’s true that coeliac disease can be diagnosed later in life, but it’s not always to blame for digestive or health problems you might be experiencing. For instance, it’s a common misconception that gluten is fattening. If you’re genuinely sensitive to gluten, it’s most common for your gut to be severely compromised and not working as it should, which is more likely to equate to weight loss rather than gain. If you’re eating a lot of gluten containing products and experiencing symptoms such as headaches, bloating and weight gain, it’s time to look at your diet in general. The usual gluten go-tos such as white bread, pastries, cakes and cereals are often highly processed, full of refined sugars and pumped with the wrong kinds of fat (high levels of trans fats and saturated fats), preservatives, chemicals and bleached flour that’s been stripped of vitamins, minerals and nutrients. If we base our diets around food like this, it’s no wonder we’re having problems.”

“The solution is not to demonise gluten, but to think more broadly. Be adventurous in your diet and swap your usual wheat based staples for a variety of wholesome alternatives, for instance try rye or barley bread, have brown rice instead of pasta for dinner, give a quinoa salad a go or introduce spelt at breakfast time. Often we settle into habits, especially during the week, so look up new, exciting recipes and experiment. Chickpeas and the like are just as satisfying as gluten equivalents! A more varied diet will ensure that we take in more nutrients, and we’re likely to feel better as a result rather than just eliminating gluten as a cure for all of our ills. You might notice this way that the odd biscuit doesn’t go down quite so badly, and that gluten wasn’t the source of your issues after all.”

The gluten backlash therefore isn’t so clear cut, although the ‘eatwell plate’ (like the food pyramid before it) could certainly mix it up a little to give us more ideas, and therefore a richer nutrient profile. The fact that so many supermarkets and restaurants are now catering for those who need to eat a gluten free diet can make the world of difference to coeliac disease sufferers and those with gluten sensitivity, but for the rest of us, it’s worth bearing in mind that a cake is always a cake, and could even be less healthy in its gluten-free version thanks to added starches and processed rising agents.

Eschewing whole grains rich in B vitamins, folic acid and iron simply to dodge gluten on the other hand is for the most part, unnecessary. Going totally gluten free can be expensive, stressful and restrictive, so perhaps ignore the anti-gluten “gurus” and practice a little moderation and culinary experimentation instead, and keep portions in check.

If you think you’re going way overboard on the gluten consumption front, here are five grains to consider adding your next meal instead, and how they’re best consumed (teff waffles anyone?!).

Have you gone gluten-free and noticed a difference? How do you feel about the gluten debate? Let us know below or tweet us @GetTheGloss

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