Over the past few years, ‘gluten free’ diets have become increasingly popular, but do they offer any true health benefits… or are they just another ‘fad’?I asked willing (but anonymous) participants to tell me what they knew about gluten, based on media portrayal; below is a sample of these questions and answers.
Zoë, DS: ‘So, what exactly is gluten, do you know?’
Subject #1: ‘Erm… I don’t know. Maybe some kind of… fat?’
Subject #2: ‘I think it’s a food additive.’
Subject #3: ‘I actually don’t know.’
Zoë, DS: ‘Do you choose to avoid gluten? If so, why is this?’
Subject #1: ‘Sometimes. I feel like if a food doesn’t contain gluten, it must be better for me.’
Subject #2: ‘There seems to be all this speculation about gluten, so if I buy something that’s gluten free, maybe I’ve made a healthier choice.’
Subject #3: ‘Isn’t ‘gluten free’ a “lighter” option that can help you to lose weight?’
Zoë, DS: Erm… okay. This tells me the media aren’t doing too great a job of educating folk in this area!
So, what is gluten and is it problematic?
Gluten’s actually a protein, found in wheat, barley, rye, and products thereof. When liquid is added to this protein matrix, it becomes viscous and flexible, producing a spongy, aerated texture that‘s unique to bread, cakes and other baked goods. Mmmm!
The main controversy surrounding gluten is due to a condition known as coeliac disease. This is an autoimmune disorder, whereby the sufferer experiences an adverse reaction to gluten proteins. This causes their immune system to produce antibodies that affect the digestive tract. The resulting inflammation causes the villi (‘finger-like’ projections) of the small intestine to shorten – also known as villous atrophy.
The villi are involved in the intricate process that is nutrient absorption, and so repeated exposure to gluten can interfere with this mechanism, which could lead to malnutrition. This is said to be the underlying cause of symptoms experienced. Diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps may occur within a few hours of consuming gluten, but there are other signs to watch out for, which are easier to overlook. These include: fatigue, depression, weight loss, iron deficiency anaemia, joint pain, skin conditions, mouth ulcers, loss of tooth enamel, and in women, menstrual regularities and fertility problems.
An estimated 1% of the population is said to have coeliac disease – though it’s believed that only 24% of this group has been clinically diagnosed. These statistics tell us two things; firstly, that a substantial number of individuals are suffering in silence, unaware they have the condition. Secondly, many people are probably, unaffected by gluten. They have become hardened cereal killers (pun absolutely intended).
It’s worth mentioning that there is such a thing called gluten sensitivity, which differs from coeliac disease. Common symptoms may be present, but they’re usually milder, and the production of antibodies does not usually take place, or any recognisable damage to the gut.
I think I have coeliac disease – what do I do next?
If you’re genuinely concerned about any symptoms you’re experiencing and think this may be related to eating gluten, it is advisable that you consult your GP, who will be able to carry out the appropriate tests. Self diagnosis is not reliable; it’s easy to assume that every itch, twitch and stitch is related to gluten, but without medical analysis, this can’t be confirmed.
Is there a cure?
Currently, there is no cure for coeliac disease, but the good news is, once gluten is removed from the diet, symptoms usually clear up completely within a short period of time.
Is it best I avoid gluten, regardless?
Some researchers of the subject have theorised that our ancestors didn’t eat grains/cereals, and therefore, our gut’s not evolved to eat gluten. However, there’s no substantial evidence to indicate that gluten is harmful to those who do not have coeliac disease. So, there’s no need to bin the bagel just yet.