Your mum has lost 5kg since going gluten-free, heaps of celebrities are ditching gluten and you’ve heard it helps reduce bloating: you are starting to think that a gluten-free diet might help you to shift some weight before summer.
But what exactly is gluten? Will switching to a gluten-free diet help you lose weight and become healthier?
So what is this villainous gluten that everyone is trying to avoid? Take your pick from the below. Is it:
a. A sugar found in wheat-based foods
b. An inflammatory chemical found in some foods
c. A protein found in wheat-based foods
If you answered C, you would be correct.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat-based foods. Far from being toxic or dangerous, gluten is what gives bread it’s chewy, fluffy texture and helps it to rise. For most people, it is harmless when eaten. Around 1 in 100 Australians (and Americans) have trouble digesting gluten. These people have been clinically diagnosed as having coeliac disease, is an autoimmune disorder where their body cannot absorb gluten, causing awful side effects such as diarrhoea, malabsorption and weight loss. But for the vast majority of people, gluten is not dangerous and does not impact negatively on their health. Despite the fact that a minority of people can’t eat gluten, gluten-free diets are on the rise. Gluten-free products are found everywhere from supermarkets to cafes to health food shops and people will often choose them, believing them to be healthier.
Is gluten-free food healthier?
Gluten-free foods are designed for people with coeliac disease. The gluten-free products you see are made with ingredients which do not contain any gluten. When manufacturers create a gluten-free product, they remove the wheat protein (gluten) from the food and substitute another flour, such as almond, rice, corn or even bean. Other ingredients can also be added in to try and recreate the same texture. Sometimes these foods are more expensive due to using different processing methods and ingredients but they are not any more or less healthy. Gluten-free biscuits, confectionery and baked goods contain the same amount of sugar, sodium and fat as the general versions. Which means even if you buy the gluten-free chocolate chip cookies, you are still getting just as much sugar and fat as you would in a chocolate chip cookie made with gluten.
Are there any benefits to a gluten-free diet?
For someone suffering coeliac disease – yes! A lifelong gluten-free is currently the only recognised medical treatment for coeliac disease. For the general population? A gluten-free diet means avoiding many common and nutritious foods. Gluten itself doesn’t offer special nutritional benefits but the many of the foods containing gluten do. This includes bread and cereals which are rich in vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins and iron, as well as fibre. For those following a gluten-free diet for health reasons it’s important to properly plan your diet to ensure you are getting enough variety and meeting all your nutritional needs.
So why does it seem everyone I know loses weight on a gluten-free diet?
When people start a diet or stop eating a certain thing they often overhaul their entire lifestyle. So for those kicking gluten, out goes the cakes, biscuits, fast food and in comes the fresh fruit, vegetables and making food at home. Anyone making these kinds of changes would see positive benefits for their health! But let’s not blame it on the gluten! Maybe it was reducing the fat, salt, sugar, snack foods, kilojoules and calories that had some effect on their weight loss?
How do I know if I need to go on a gluten-free diet?
If you suspect you have trouble with gluten, don’t self-diagnose. Even if you feel better when you remove wheat or gluten from your diet it does not necessarily mean you have coeliac disease. There are other causes for discomfort after eating certain foods, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome or intolerances to other foods. Check out my article here which covers weight gain and bread which might be helpful. Many people believe they cannot eat gluten after seeing a health worker who has performed an allergy test. However, many of these allergy tests are unproven and can give misleading results. If you think you might have coeliac disease ensure you visit your doctor who will look at your medical history, do a blood test or a skin test, and will examine you to determine if you are coeliac. What do you think? Have you seen great changes after giving up gluten? Or do you still eat healthily while enjoying breads and pasta?