In recent years, gluten-free diets have soared in popularity. Gluten-free produce, once found only really in health food stores now lines local supermarket shelves.
Although coeliac disease (condition in which one’s immune system attacks one’s body upon ingestion of gluten) has been increasing steadily since the second half of the twentieth century, and the prevalence of gluten sensitivity has grown too, it’s not just this group that avoids gluten.
According to Mintel, in the UK gluten-free produce is the “most popular type of free-from food with 27% of consumers having purchased or eaten these over six months.”
Being gluten-free is a real trend, and foods like bread and pasta in particular are often demonised as a carbohydrate source that contributes to weight gain and poor nutrition. How often have you heard someone proclaim, “gluten isn’t healthy”? But is this fair?
A gluten-free diet is not healthier for all
“Bread and carbs are an important part of a healthy balanced diet” says Rhiannon Lambert, founder of Rhitrition clinic on Harley Street and the Food for Thought podcast. We should not cut out gluten or carbohydrates because they “are an important part of a healthy balanced diet.”
Rhiannon explains that, “cutting carbohydrates was once hailed as the answer to fast-track health and weight loss. Atkins, keto and so many other diets all avoid bread along with potatoes and pasta in favour of loading up on protein sources and high-fat items. These popular diets only heightened the already widespread misconception that carbs make you gain weight.”
“Carbohydrates hold a special place in nutrition as they provide the largest single source of energy in the diet. Most carbs get broken down or transformed into glucose, which can be used as energy. Carbs can also be turned into fat (stored energy) for later use. Glucose is the essential fuel for our brains and the preferred energy source for our muscles during strenuous exercise.”
Who should follow a gluten-free diet?
Coeliac disease sufferers must avoid gluten. They have serious reactions to gliadin, a protein that comprises roughly 70% of the protein in gluten. Diagnostic medical tests confirm this. However, advice for non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is less clear. Those with NCGS test negative for coeliac disease, but report symptoms such as headaches and digestive problems upon eating gluten.
Some suggest that those with gluten sensitivity might instead be sensitive to pesticides, enzymes, wheat proteins, yeast or other chemicals used in processes used in manufacturing since the 1960s rather than gluten itself. Andrew Whitley, author of Bread Matters, is in this camp, and explains vehemently that those with gluten sensitivity are often fine when eating a home-made loaf: “industrial bread might be making increasing numbers of people unwell.”
The bottom line? If you have a serious reaction to a certain food, absolutely avoid it. If you have a sensitivity to gluten, consult a medical professional or nutritional therapist. However, if you’re trying just to feel healthier? There are other ways to improve your health and well-being. Eat gluten and enjoy it.