It's become somewhat of a trend to cut out gluten, but should even non-Coeliacs be avoiding it? We asked the nutritional experts
Whether you're suffering from wheat intolerance or not, going gluten-free can help prevent bloating - but does that mean we should be avoiding it?
We're well accustomed to celebrities tenaciously guarding their diet secrets and claiming it’s just good genes or all about balance, but the who's who of Hollywood are such enthusiasts of the diet du jour that they just can’t help but sing its praises.
Whether it’s Miley Cyrus thanking it for her dramatic weight loss, Kim Kardashian tweeting about it, Jessica Alba running around LA with snacks advocating it or Gwyneth Paltrow sharing recipes on Goop; they're all going gaga for gluten-free.
For some, eliminating gluten is necessary due to intolerance or coeliac disease but for others, it’s a simple food choice. We enlisted nutritional expert Amelia Freer to break down the stats and facts.
GTG: What is gluten?
AF: Gluten is a protein present in many grains. It’s actually the ‘glue’ that produces the dough-like consistency of gluten-containing grains. Gluten is made up of gliadin and glutenin, and it’s gliadin that causes problems for people who are either allergic, intolerant or sensitive to gluten.
GTG: Which types of food contain gluten?
AF: Gluten is present in wheat - this includes spelt, durum, kamut, farro, bulgur, semolina, rye and barley. I also include oats; they don't contain gliadin – it’s mainly cross-contamination in manufacturing methods that introduce gliadin. That said, oats do contain a gluten molecule called avenin, different to gliadin but it’ll still produce an inflammatory response in sensitive individuals, and so if someone is gluten-sensitive or has coeliac disease I always advise them to avoid even ‘gluten-free’ oats.
GTG: Is being gluten-free the same as being wheat-free?
AF: No. There are foods that contain gluten that don't contain wheat. For example, rye doesn’t contain wheat but does contain gluten, and barley couscous is a wheat-free grain but still contains gluten.
GTG: Why do people go gluten-free?
AF: It could be because they have one of two medical conditions; coeliac disease or gluten intolerance. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition, a full-blown allergy to gluten. It's recognised as a common condition that may be diagnosed at any age and can affect many organ systems, not just the digestive tract.
People with coeliac disease have a permanent intolerance to gluten that results in inflammatory damage to the small intestine. This leads to bowel problems and vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Even tiny amounts of gluten will cause the problem, so coeliacs have to follow a strictly gluten-free diet.
Gluten intolerance is where gluten acts as an irritant to the digestive tract, causing problems such as diarrhoea, flatulence and bloating.
GTG: How do you know if you are suffering with wheat intolerance?
AF: The number one symptom of allergies or food sensitivities is fatigue and number two is gastrointestinal symptoms. Alarmingly, it is possible to have coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity without any gastrointestinal symptoms, so both are frequently undiagnosed. Anything from acne to arthritis can be improved with a gluten-free diet, however it must be monitored and supported by a professional as there can be complications to going gluten-free. I suggest seeking the advice of a qualified nutritional therapist or functional medical practitioner to identify if gluten is an issue for you.
GTG: Are there other benefits of going gluten-free even if you're not intolerant to gluten?
AF: I believe so, as gluten is very difficult to digest and therefore is likely to be inflammatory for everyone. The form of grain consumption today is a vast migration from the way humans have eaten for almost our entire history. The gluten content in grains has tripled in the last 100 years because our grains are genetically altered now to be hardier and yield more crop, so the amount of gluten we are consuming has increased in every way. It’s actually the prevalence of IBS symptoms that is one of the main reasons why more and more people are giving up gluten (and with great results).
Also, it’s important to note that while symptoms may not immediately present themselves, long-term health could well be affected. In 2002, The New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 ‘diseases’ that can be caused by eating gluten.
GTG: Can going gluten-free help you to lose weight?
AF: Absolutely! The increase in grain consumption over the last 100 years or so has certainly been correlated to the increase in our population’s weight gain. Grains certainly cause insulin spikes which lead to fat storage - yes, even the wholegrains, especially if you are combining them with sugar, i.e. flour and sugar to make a muffin or cupcake.
Going gluten-free does cut out most of the starchy carbohydrate food groups such as pizza, pasta, breads and cakes, so naturally weight loss occurs. Also, if we are eating a food that is producing an inflammatory response within our bodies, it can be very hard for our bodies to find their natural weight. Often I meet clients who diet and exercise but can’t lose weight – this can often be corrected when identifying and eliminating foods to which they are intolerant.
GTG: How should you choose which gluten-free products to go for?
AF: Avoidance of products containing gluten is fairly straightforward, but the complex manufacture of modern processed food means that the ongoing advice of a trained nutritional therapist is helpful in this area.
I am personally not a fan of most gluten-free products, as they tend to contain poor quality ingredients and are often loaded with things like corn starch or potato starch as well as sugar in varying forms. My advice would be to read labels carefully and check that they don’t contain a long list of ingredients and certainly not E numbers or chemicals. Keep things simple.
If you still want to eat some grains or starchy carbs then go for brown basmati rice, brown rice pasta, buckwheat noodles, buckwheat pancakes, quinoa (if it agrees with you, many find it doesn’t) and there are also many raw seed crackers available which come in handy when you want to reach for the bread. I avoid the lot, but it can take a while to adjust to living a grain-free life and so the above can be useful as staples.
MORE GLOSS: A great recipe for lettuce wraps
Also, it’s important to note that dairy products can be implicated with gluten-sensitive or coeliac individuals. In fact, the cross-contamination of gluten can spread to our coffee, red wine and chocolate as well as our shampoo and lipstick! For this reason, it's always best to consult a qualified nutritional therapist for a thorough analysis of your diet.
Looking for more information about nutrition? Check out Amelia Freer's other tips and recipes.