An opinion series by the Selph Health Studios NutritionistJenny Boss MHumNutr, responding to what you’ve read online. 

I have read that Miley Cyrus, Gwyneth Paltrow, Oprah, and Novak Djokovic seem to think so. If you believe everything you read online, going gluten free will aid weight loss, give you better skin and improve athletic performance.

Not only that, eating the stuff will cause inflammation in your gut and may even trigger auto-immune disorders like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or rheumatoid arthritis.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye and in most oats (by cross contamination). Wheat comes in many forms, so you’ll also find gluten in spelt, couscous, faro, freekeh, semolina, and bulgur wheat.

Who should avoid it?

If you have coeliac disease, you absolutely must avoid gluten. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder where in response to eating gluten the body attacks the small intestine, reducing its ability to absorb nutrients and causing widespread serious health problems.

Few people are more qualified to answer this than Dr Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital, and considered one of the world’s experts on the topic. Gluten is not easily digested by anyone, says Dr Fasano, but that doesn’t mean we should all avoid it and he’s quick to point out that most of us can handle it just fine.

In certain genetically susceptible people, gluten can trigger intestinal and other symptoms. We describe them as having gluten sensitivity without having full-blown coeliac disease.

The facts behind gluten sensitivity

Whereas once he was sceptical, Dr Fasano is now convinced gluten sensitivity is very real. “I once believed that it was only people with coeliac disease who should come off gluten, but my patients have taught me this is not the case, and that others can benefit from a gluten-free diet,” says Dr Fasano.

Reported symptoms of gluten sensitivity include abdominal pain, eczema, headache, ‘foggy mind’, fatigue, depression, diarrhoea, anaemia and joint pain.

But Dr Fasano is wary of what he describes as the ‘fad factor’ of the gluten-free diet, as most of the claims made about gluten and its relationship to disease cannot be substantiated by science.

What is worthy of further research, says Dr Fasano, is the changing human microbiome (gut bacteria). The recent increase in coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity has emerged following huge dietary changes over the last 100 years, which have drastically changed the make-up of the gut flora. He believes this in itself can be a trigger for the increase in autoimmune disease we’ve seen over the last 50 years.

The risk of eliminating gluten if you don’t need to

You’d think there are only benefits from eliminating gluten. After all, you can’t eat regular cakes, biscuits, muffins and other non-essential high-kilojoule foods.

The evidence, however, is mixed.

Many gluten-free foods are highly processed. This gives them a higher glycaemic index than regular foods, meaning they will quickly spike your blood sugar. People who eliminate gluten may eat far fewer wholegrains and more simple sugars, says a UK study. It found the gluten-free diet to contain fewer essential nutrients including magnesium, iron, zinc, manganese, selenium and folate and to be lower in fibre than a regular diet.

Drastically reducing wholegrains from your diet also eliminates a major source of food for your gut bacteria, according to Associate Professor Felice Jacka of Deakin University, a world expert on the relationship between diet and mental health. The fibre in wholegrains can help ensure we maintain a diverse range of bacteria in our gut, which in turn help to keep us mentally and physically well.

Going gluten free can certainly benefit some people, particularly if you are sensitive to gluten or have an autoimmune disease. But if you do eliminate gluten, ensure you eat a variety of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains to ensure you get all the essential nutrients and fibre, and keep pre-packaged food to a minimum.

Some good gluten-free grains to include in your diet are rice (preferably brown), quinoa, millet, teff, buckwheat, and polenta (corn).

Jenny Boss is the lead nutritionist at Selph Health Studios. Jenny works alongside her clients to build healthy and sustainable eating habits to suit your body and goals. Book in an appointment with Jenny. 

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