The gluten-free diet craze has been going strong for a few years now. This somewhat restrictive diet has been led by the media, implying that you can ‘shed the kilos’ or ‘cure medical conditions’ by cutting out gluten. But what is this ‘unhealthy’ gluten? Gluten is quite simply a protein that is naturally found in the cereals wheat, barley and rye.

glutenfree2It is imperative that people with coeliac disease avoid gluten in their diet. Coeliac disease is a lifelong condition, caused by the immune system reacting to gluten. When someone with coeliac disease eats gluten, their immune system reacts by damaging the lining of the small intestine. Symptoms range from mild to severe, and can include bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, wind, constipation, tiredness, mouth ulcers, sudden or unexpected weight loss, hair loss and anaemia. Long term consequences of going undiagnosed and continuing to eat gluten can include osteoporosis, infertility and bowel cancer.

An estimated 1% of the population is thought to have coeliac disease, and of those, almost three quarters remain undiagnosed. Many people cut gluten from their diet thinking that they are intolerant to it because they have symptoms that come on after eating wheat. But it’s hard to know whether these symptoms are because of a genuine intolerance to gluten, an intolerance to something else in wheat, or nothing to do with wheat at all. In reality, very few people need to cut out gluten from their diet but millions are.

There has been an explosion in the market of gluten-free products over recent years. You may have noticed this in the supermarket along with a growing number of gluten-free choices in restaurants. The packaging of these products affirms their contents free from gluten and implies health benefits. These options are much appreciated by those who are intolerant to gluten, however are unnecessary for the majority of the population.

A huge celebrity and media influence has contributed to this interest in the gluten-free market. An example being when Gwyneth Paltrow announced she had cured her son’s eczema by putting him on a gluten-free diet in 2013. There is no significant scientific evidence to support this claim.

The UK’s gluten-free market is expected to grow even more and it is predicted to be worth morefreefrom than £500 million by 2019. New research reveals that 8% of Brits report avoidance of gluten as part of a ‘healthy lifestyle’, compared to 5% who report avoidance due to intolerance. The top reason people give for eating gluten-free foods is because it makes them feel healthier, with two in five (39%) giving this reason, whilst one fifth (19%) say they eat these products because they are trying to lose weight.

I have heard people say ‘I buy this gluten-free product because it helps me lose weight’. If people have lost a few kilos from going gluten-free, it is likely that they have stopped eating a wide range of foods and therefore reduced their calorie intake. A gluten-free diet is not necessarily lower in fat or calories or higher in nutrients than a regular healthy diet. It’s also worth pointing out that a lot of people are wasting their money unnecessarily on expensive gluten-free products when they could be buying more fruit and vegetables instead.

So please don’t go gluten-free unless you have an intolerance. Try not to be influenced by bloggers and health freaks lacking in scientific understanding. Don’t think there is a health benefit to it because no such thing is true. If you think you may have an intolerance it is important to see a doctor to get an accurate diagnosis, but if not there really is no need to cut out the gluten!

kirstyKirsty Bamping RD MNutr

Kirsty is a Registered Dietitian and currently works for the NHS. She obtained a Master of Nutrition (Dietetics) degree from the University of Nottingham. Kirsty is interested in assessing, diagnosing and treating diet and nutrition problems at an individual and wider public health level.

 

Foodtalk blog posts are written by a variety of health and care professionals in order to showcase different perspectives in the world of nutrition and health.