So what is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in the grains wheat, barley, and rye.
To people with a chronic digestive disorder called celiac disease, gluten causes their bodies to mount an immune response, which ends up damaging the small intestine, causing both great gastrointestinal distress and nutritional deficiencies. If untreated, these responses can then lead to intestinal cancers as well as complications such as infertility and osteoporosis.
Interestingly - as gluten-free diets continue to rise in popularity, new research from Kellogg Australia reveals that only 3% of Aussies who report going gluten-free do so due to an actual diagnosis of coeliac disease.
People have latched on to avoiding gluten as a cure-all for many conditions aside from celiac, including migraines, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Some even have the idea that a gluten-free existence is the ticket to speedy weight loss.
While some have found relief, that doesn't mean a gluten free diet will work in all cases, and there's certainly nothing magical about a gluten-free diet that's going to help you lose weight.
Ahead of World Digestive Health Day, we spoke to molecular nutritionist Dr Emma Beckett to understand the key differences between gluten-free diets, and the pros and cons that these diets have on your health.
Gluten-free diets due to coeliac disease
The most severe reaction to gluten containing foods is coeliac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes damage and inflammation to the small intestine. Symptoms include various gastrointestinal complications, prevention of absorption of some nutrients, and long-term harm to the body. A diagnosis can only be determined by a blood test, however despite this, almost half the nation (46%) incorporate gluten-free foods in their diet for one reason or another.
Gluten-free diets due to self-diagnosed gluten intolerance
On the flip side, another problem is emerging, which experts refer to as as nonceliac gluten sensitivity.
A large portion of the Australian population (1 in 10) believe they are gluten sensitive. This is when a person eating gluten containing foods feels temporary stomach pain or bloating. Ultimately, this differs from coeliac disease as the effects do not cause long-term damage to the body. If you do believe you have a gluten intolerance, it’s best to get tested by your doctor to rule out coeliac disease.
So, are gluten-free diets healthier?
While incorporating gluten-free foods into your diet is very beneficial to those who are coeliac or gluten intolerant, the research from Kellogg’s Australia has found that over a third (36%) of Aussies have opted for gluten-free options to eat healthier, and almost a quarter (23%) looking to lose weight by removing gluten from their diet.
Opting for a gluten-free diet when you don’t have a medical reason to can be an issue as strictly gluten-free diets are often lacking in fibre, calcium, iron and other nutrients. Fibre-rich foods such as wholegrain bread and fibre cereals are often the first to get cut out, and gluten-free replacements aren’t always replacements for those nutrients. Many gluten free breakfast cereals are lower in fibre. Whether you are medically diagnosed, self-diagnosed, or just want to eat healthier, it’s important to ensure you are still getting all the essential nutrients you need when following a gluten-free diet.
Dr Beckett’s tips for going gluten free
Regardless of whether you are medically diagnosed, self-diagnosed or just want to eat healthier, it’s important to ensure you are still getting all the essential nutrients you need. Below are my top tips for those eating a gluten-free diet.
Tip 1: The research has shown only 1 in 10 Australians has recognised gluten-free diets lack essential nutrients such as fibre, an important component for digestive health. Fibre is essential for our body as it feeds the good bacteria living in our gut, so if you go gluten-free, make sure to look for high fibre options like Sultana Bran Gluten Free, a good source of daily dietary fibre you can get first thing in the morning.
Tip 2: Include plant-based foods to as many meals as possible when eating a gluten-free diet, to ensure you’re receiving essential nutrients such as fibre. This can be as simple as adding fruit and legumes to your lunchtime salad or switching your dinner options to include more vegetable components.
Tip 3: Swap your daily coffee for a small homemade smoothie that includes fresh leafy greens such as spinach or kale.
Tip 4: With winter approaching, look to include dried beans and legumes to your soups for added fibre.
With 79% of the nation looking to more accessible gluten-free options to incorporate into their diet, opting for fibre-fueled and plant-based foods is an excellent way to ensure that you are getting ample amounts of essential nutrients daily.