GOING GLUTEN: What’s all the fad about?

GI_mainimageThese days if you invite a group of people over for dinner you will without doubt get someone claiming to be gluten sensitive asking if you could make sure there is no pasta, bread, sauce, marinade, dressings, icings, chocolate, sugar or soups on the menu.

Oh yeah, and be sure to remove all envelopes from the household too as even the glue on the back contains… You guessed it, gluten. Is it just me or did eating out just become more appealing. I mean all that’s left to feed your guests is fresh fruit and vegetables (including potatoes), fresh lean meats, eggs, nut, legumes, milk and oils.

The problem with the term “gluten free” is that most people think a gluten free diet is a healthy option like low fat, sugar free or low carb. Others think it is a trend. Walk down the aisles of any supermarket and the term “gluten free” jumps out everywhere. Even fast food outlets are offering products free of gluten and the abbreviation “GF” constantly appears next to meals on restaurant menus.

So have we become a nation where for the majority of people, problems with processing gluten have reached epidemic proportions? Or are we confused and genuinely believe that eradicating gluten from our diet is the healthiest way?

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein composite found in foods made from wheat and other grains including barley, oats and rye. It gives elasticity to dough and can assist in giving the final chewy texture to bread. Many people claim they are “gluten intolerant” because of the ill effects they may feel after consuming foods that contain these grains.

On a serious level there are in fact people who suffer with coeliac disease, an auto immune disorder, meaning when they eat products containing gluten their immune system reacts abnormally, causing small bowel damage. The disease effect about one in 100 Australians, says Coeliac Australia, and can also lead to infertility, miscarriage, liver disease and type 1 diabetes. In saying this, it is estimated one million Aussies are currently on some kind of gluten free diet and not for the reason of having any diagnosed problem. So is it just a fad?

Well we could assume that people are eliminating gluten in belief that it is healthier, with many experts in the areas of nutrition and naturopathy believing the gluten craze is just the latest fad diet, while some are claiming there’s no place for gluten in the modern diet. The theory here, is that after years of exposure we are in fact becoming intolerant due to what is known as the “build up effect”, a widespread theory whereby consuming too much of any one thing can in fact cause our body to build up a resistance and when it reaches its threshold a reaction takes place causing symptoms.

But even with these theories, it seems a little narrow minded to label gluten as enemy number one. One theory I have is that sensitivity to food and developing intolerance to such industrialised sources starts well before we are even born. I mean, think about it, a woman falls pregnant and all of a sudden the foods she can’t eat outweigh the foods she can eat. No nuts, no cured or cold meats and soft cheeses are all off limits, yet we wonder why our kids are born with intolerance and are easily susceptible to food allergies. Anyway that’s an argument for another day.

Dr Sue Shepherd, an advanced accredited dietician states, “Gluten free diets can lead to weight gain and nutrient deficiency.” Being gluten free does not mean you are eating healthy, in fact women on such diets have shown to display low levels of fibre, calcium and thiamine (B1) which is an essential nutrient the body must have to convert carbohydrates (food) into energy while men have shown inadequate levels of calcium, zinc and fibre.

The final word

So is gluten free for everyone?

For most people, a gluten free diet is not a choice but a necessity as they suffer through severe physical and emotional symptoms; they have to adhere to gluten free eating just to stay well.
It must be said that it is not harmful to eat gluten free if you don’t have coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity. It is important to construct an eating plan based on clean, fresh whole foods while limiting processed foods that are high in sugar and salt. People don’t realise gluten free products are not healthier and they can still be highly processed, high in sugar, high GI and lack vital nutrition and whether certified gluten or not can still contain unhealthy levels of starch, kilojoules and salt.

My advice is that people should go gluten free because they have a diagnosed problem, with severe cases requiring a blood test or small bowel biopsy to be certain. So if you think you could be gluten intolerant or suffer from coeliac disease seek treatment from a health care professional. Don’t diagnose yourself – eliminating an entire food group without proper screening and advice is not healthy.

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