Gluten free – necessary for health, or a fad?

Gluten is a type of protein found in some grains, such as wheat, barley and rye. If you think about an ear of wheat and the grains that are within it, gluten gives strength to each one of the tiny cells inside those grains. Essentially the grains produce gluten to give their cell walls strength.

In bread-making gluten gives the dough its elasticity and helps it to rise. When the flour, yeast and water are mixed the gluten strands are tangled at first and as the dough is kneaded the strands become more aligned and the dough gets smoother and stretchier. Without gluten the dough would be heavy and un-malleable, with gluten you get a beautiful risen and soft loaf and the dough is easy to work with.

Gluten intolerance, coeliac disease and gluten-free

Until about the mid–2000s people didn’t talk about gluten intolerance and most people wouldn’t know what coeliac disease was. But in the last few years ‘gluten-free’ (GF) has become a daily term and GF foods are available everywhere. Even foods that didn’t have any gluten anyway are sometimes labelled as gluten-free, as a marketing tactic. Gluten-intolerance symptoms are almost fashionable now with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham riding on the back of the health craze.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine, often inherited. When the sufferer consumes gluten foods the gut treats a component of the gluten as an invader and heightens its immune response.  Over time this constant immune response damages the gut walls and compromises nutrient absorption. That’s because the gut is lined with millions of tiny finger-shaped protrusions called ‘villi’, which increase the surface area so that more nutrients can be absorbed; repeated inflammation damages and flattens the villi.

Intestinal villi
Intestinal villi are tiny, finger-like projections made up of cells that line your small intestine.

Coeliac disease symptoms include frequent diarrhoea, gastric pain, bloating, tiredness, headaches, hair loss, muscle weakness and more. These are also the symptoms of many other conditions, such as underactive thyroid.

The actual prevalence of coeliac disease is about 1% of the population. There may be a significant number of undiagnosed cases but still it’s highly unlikely that population percentage would rise to reflect the number of self-diagnosed cases of gluten sensitivity.

Leaky gut

A theory has emerged, commonly put forward by alternative health and functional medicine practitioners, that the gut can become ‘leaky’ which means it lets things through into the bloodstream that it shouldn’t. The thought is that unwanted substances can pass through a damaged intestinal wall, causing an inflammatory response in other parts of the body. At the moment there is no formal recognition of the leaky gut theory (intestinal permeability) but it’s a theory that’s gaining a lot of ground and is interesting to follow. As coeliac damages the gut lining then future research may show that it also causes leaky gut. Again, the symptoms of leaky gut can mimic those of other gastric or inflammatory conditions.

Non coeliac gluten sensitivity

This is when there are symptoms similar to coeliac disease but no antibodies are produced and there does not appear to be damage to the gut lining. There’s no test for it and it’s not clear whether it’s gluten or other factors such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) that are behind the symptoms. Sometimes people say they feel better when they cut out wheat but it’s because their previous diet was very wheat heavy, in other words it was the quantity eaten rather than the wheat itself.

Wheat allergy

This is different to coeliac or non coeliac gluten sensitivity; it’s nothing to do with gluten but is an immune reaction to other proteins found in wheat and produces acute symptoms within seconds or minutes of eating.

Are people really becoming more sensitive to gluten or has it always been a condition that simply went undiagnosed?

Well, it may be like a lot of food-related symptoms in that too much of anything is usually bad for you.

These days people’s diets are wheat and gluten heavy; they might start the morning with a wheat-based cereal or some toast and go on to have a pastry or some biscuits mid morning. Lunch might be a sandwich (more bread), there could be more biscuits in the afternoon and dinner might be a plate of pasta. It sounds extreme but this is the way a lot of people eat.

You could liken it to feeling OK after one glass of wine, but feeling rough after three. A glass of wine is probably OK but three is damaging and produces symptoms, likewise a sandwich is OK but preceded by a massive bowl of Cheerios and followed by a vat of pasta things start to go pear shaped. If you ate a washing up bowl of broccoli chances are you’d feel quite awful, yet we think it’s OK to constantly overeat bread, cereals, cakes and biscuits.

On top of that portion sizes are large, so the cereal and pasta meals can be more than double the right amount. And people’s diets are loaded with other poor quality foods; not only is mainstream bread over-processed and full of additives but ready meals, snacks, sugary drinks, alcohol and crisps do not make a happy gut. Neither does constant snacking and eating dinner late, which is so common now; not to mention stress, inactivity and lack of sleep.

What about wheat itself, has it changed?

It could be that wheat has changed over the decades. The demand for soft squidgy bread that keeps for days means that the flour used needs a higher gluten content, as well as the bread having plenty of additives to make it mould-resistant and a consistently soft texture; people don’t want traditional bread now as they’ve got used to the squidgy pappy stuff. Higher gluten wheats have been bred for that purpose, so not only are we eating more wheat-based foods but the wheat in those foods contains more gluten.

Has farming changed?

Not only that but farming practises have changed and non-organic wheat can be sprayed with glyphosate just before harvest, to dry it out ready to be brought in from the fields. The residual chemical could perhaps be a culprit in gut symptoms, since its safety to human health is the subject of ongoing raging debates.

And the way we make bread?

Lastly, the bread making process now produces a loaf in around 2.5 hours start to finish, as opposed to something like sourdough which has a long ferment time meaning that more of the gluten gets used up by the fermentation process itself rather than passing into us to ‘process’ in large quantities.

As I mentioned before, industrial bread-making includes a raft of additives and those additives often contain extra gluten, added in its own right but not labelled as such. A bread such as sourdough contributes to gut health by providing probiotic cultures, a bread such as mass produced sliced (and supermarket bakery breads) detracts from gut health and could be seen as an ‘anti-nutrient’.

Gluten-free explosion

As for gluten-free foods, the market has increased massively because people are led to believe that a GF diet is a healthier one or will help weight loss, and also because they have diagnosed themselves as gluten intolerant based on media hype. One in ten people now avoid gluten when, as mentioned earlier, only about 1% of the population are coeliac. Interestingly, and unsurprisingly, a recent study concluded this:

It’s not just GF foods that we’re being ripped off with either, it’s books, magazines, podcasts and whole lifestyles and diet regimes that are on sale or promoting a livelihood that rides on GF-living and its supposed health panacea effects.

What is gluten-free and is it healthier for you?

Gluten-free means that the product doesn’t contain any gluten or derivatives of gluten. So with bread, for instance, it’s made with an alternative grain.

If you aren’t professionally diagnosed as gluten-sensitive, a gluten-free diet isn’t healthier or better for weight loss. Before giving up gluten based on self-diagnosis speak to your GP or a registered dietitian or nutritionist.

fitnaturally does not provide gluten-free dietary advice unless there is a medical (NHS) diagnosis of coeliac or gluten sensitivity and the advice of a registered dietitian has been sought.

Which foods contain gluten?

  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Bulgur
  • Rye
  • Spelt
  • Oats (It’s not gluten but a very similar protein called Avenin. Oats can often be contaminated with gluten from other grains processed in the same factory.)
  • Kamut
  • Triticale
  • Semolina
  • Pumpernickel
  • Farro

List of gluten-free foods (grains):

  • Rice (all varieties)
  • Buckwheat
  • Teff
  • Amaranth
  • Quinoa
  • Corn
  • Hominy
  • Millet

Gluten can also be found in:

  • Modified food starch
  • MSG
  • Beer
  • Emulsifiers
  • Soy sauce
  • Some medications and supplements
  • Other processed foods

Myths and legends about gluten

Gluten sensitivity leads to fat gain
There are a variety of symptoms that may occur with gluten sensitivity, but fat gain typically isn’t one of them.

Eating a gluten-free diet will help you lose weight 
In fact, it may be harder to eat healthily on a gluten-free diet. A study published in August 2017 in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics suggested that fat, saturates, sugar, and salt were higher in gluten-free foods than in gluten-containing foods in the UK. This is so gluten-free foods have improved texture and taste.

You will feel better when you remove gluten from your diet
If removing poor quality gluten-containing foods and replacing them with wholesome, nutrient-rich foods makes you feel better it’s likely because you are eating more healthily.

Gluten-containing foods are bad for you
Whole grains that contain gluten provide beneficial fibre, vitamins, and minerals.

Eliminating gluten will heal your gut
Eating better, sleeping better, reducing stress, eating quality food and not too much, reducing snacking and grazing, reducing alcohol and many other lifestyle changes will help your gut immensely.

Gluten-free diets are low-carb
Foods with gluten often have carbs. Lots of carb-rich foods are included in a gluten-free diet, such as rice, sugar, fruit, potatoes.

‘Wheat-free’ and ‘gluten-free’ labels mean the same thing
If a product is labelled ‘wheat-free’, it may contain gluten. Barley and rye are two wheat-free foods that do contain gluten. All gluten-free foods are free of wheat. “Wheat-free” is ambiguous.

Humans weren’t meant to digest gluten
There is no evidence that our digestive systems struggle to process gluten compounds unless you are one of the 1% of the population that is allergic to gluten (coeliac).

Conclusion

While a tiny percentage of the population are truly gluten intolerant a larger proportion of people may be affected by media hype, marketing and food trends.

Some people may be symptomatic due to other dietary and lifestyle factors including simply overeating wheat-based foods. And as I mentioned above the wheat in foods may contain a higher amount of gluten than before.

There is still research to be done on non coeliac gluten sensitivity but at the moment there is no diagnostic test or clear differentiation between it and other conditions such as IBS.

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