Following my recent trip to Be Fit London, I continue to be interested in the link many people made between health/fitness and the gluten-free diet, so I was delighted to be asked by my local Sweaty Betty team to write a blog about gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, barley & oats) to mark Coeliac Awareness Week.
Up to 30% of people are believed to be cutting down on the gluten in their diet, but with only an estimated 1% suffering from coeliac disease, with many of those undiagnosed, what is the truth behind some of the common reasons that are leading people to try a gluten free diet?
Gluten is bad for you
This poor protein gets a bad wrap. If you are one of the 1% that suffers from coeliac disease, then yes, the gluten proteins cause an autoimmune reaction in your body that causes damage to your gut, and a variety of symptoms including headaches, stomach pain, diarrhoea and lethargy; over time the resultant gut damage can lead to malnutrition, osteoporosis and potentially cancer. Pretty serious stuff!
But beyond this, research into ‘gluten intolerance’ or ‘non coeliac gluten sensitivity’ (NCGS) has so far not shown that gluten is to blame for the IBS like symptoms that many other people report to experience when they eat gluten containing foods. Many high street ‘food intolerance’ or alternative practitioners ‘food sensitivity’ tests which point the finger at gluten have also been widely discredited. So why are so many people convinced that gluteny foods cause them problems?
The latest thinking points to so-called ‘FODMAPs’ – types of carbohydrate (found in wheat amongst other foods) that are poorly absorbed by the gut, but this is a very new area of research and much is unknown.
Either way, the important thing if you think you have problems with gluten, is to NOT remove it from your diet, and to ask your GP for a blood test for coeliac first – it won’t be accurate if you don’t have gluten in your diet when it’s done. Diagnosed coeliacs receive support in making the transition to a gluten free diet from a registered dietitian.
A gluten free diet can help you lose weight
If you replace the gluten-filled bread, cakes, pizza and pasta with fruit and vegetables, perhaps! The weight loss reported by many trying out a gluten free diet is often related to it being a naturally low in carbohydrates, rather than because of the gluten itself.
But if you replace them with gluten-free bread, cakes, pizza and pasta; then I’m afraid not. In fact, most coeliacs put on weight when they go gluten free! Gluten free alternative products are just as filled with carbohydrates, sugars and fats (if not more so) which leads me on to…
Gluten free food is healthier
The manufacturers of gluten free loaves may like you to believe they are healthier, but slice for slice they usually contain double the fat and about 50% more calories. Extra sugar, colourings and preservatives are usually added to replicate the ‘gluteny’ texture, improve the flavour and shelf life – not exactly the nutritional profile of a health product!
A naturally gluten free diet (based on meat, fish, plenty of fruit and vegetables, and gluten free whole grains like rice, buckwheat, uncontaminated oats and quinoa), however, can be very healthy. It’s advisable to get advice from a professional dietitian before undertaking it though, as unguided you risk missing out on a number of key nutrients including calcium, and you must pay close attention to getting enough fibre.
Going gluten free helps sports performance
The lethargy and inability to absorb key nutrients that comes with coeliac disease is unlikely to help athletes (and us amateur gym-enthusiasts!) perform at their best, so recovering coeliacs may well see a resultant improvement in their performance when they go gluten free; assuming they pay adequate attention to their wider nutritional needs. Sadly, though, despite some clever marketing and sponsorship arrangements between gluten free brands and sports teams/personalities, the same is unlikely to be true for everyone else. The evidence at best, is anecdotal.
And for every anecdote, there is a counter anecdote. The sports ‘poster boy’ for gluten free is perhaps Novak Djokovic, however his reasons and rationale for going gluten free have been roundly critiqued; not least by other Wimbledon winner, Andy Murray who also dabbled in the gluten free diet: “I tried it for a couple of months and felt awful. I lost all my energy and felt so weak. I didn’t feel it helped me at all, so I just went back to do doing what I did before. It was working fine for me, so I haven’t changed that too much since.”
But let’s give the last word to Rafa Nadal: “Now, it seems like the gluten-free diet is great. After three years or four years, we will find another thing that will be great too. Then the gluten-free will not work anymore.”
11th-17th May is Coeliac Awareness Week. Whilst awareness of coeliac disease and the gluten free diet are higher than ever before, there is still a way to go to find the estimated 500 000 people undiagnosed in the UK. If you or someone you know experiences symptoms when you eat gluten containing foods, speak to your GP. Coeliac UK have also created an online assessment: http://www.isitcoeliacdisease.org.uk/