You may recognise the word gluten, but do you really know what it is? This buzzword has been doing the rounds in the wellness and nutritional world for the last decade, with many people suggesting it’s bad for health and advocating for gluten free diets to achieve superior health, but let’s explore if there’s any truth to this.
Gluten is the name for proteins found in grains such as barley, wheat, and rye. It’s responsible for giving bread it’s bouncy texture and dough its stretchy quality. It can be found in foods such as pasta, bread, and cereals. It also appears in condiments like soy sauce and some salad dressings.
Alternatives to pasta and bread are often labelled gluten-free, but navigating a gluten free diet can be overwhelming. A simple strategy is to check ingredients labels for allergens. If wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt or Khorasan wheat are listed, then avoid that product.
Coeliac disease is a medical condition that can only be diagnosed by a doctor or dietitian. People who are coeliac develop severe digestive issues including diarrhoea, constipation, and stomach aches after consuming gluten. This is because their body identifies gluten as a “negative item” and triggers an immune response. People with coeliac may also have unexplained weight loss and fatigue.
Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, more commonly known as gluten intolerance, is another medical condition that similarly benefits from a gluten-free diet. Symptoms are similar to those of coeliac disease, though there is no immune system response involved. Gluten intolerance is thought to occur when the body can’t break down the protein efficiently, which leads to bloating and other digestive issues.
Anyone who suffers with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) may choose to avoid gluten if they have identified gluten as a trigger.
If you’re experiencing digestive issues speak to your doctor in the first instance. They’ll be able to do relevant tests, talk through your symptoms, offer advice and refer you to a dietician if needed. While there are numerous food intolerance tests available online, these are not recommended by the British Dietary Association as they often don’t meet healthcare standards.
Gluten is present in lots of foods, and avoiding it should be done with the help of a healthcare professional, as removing a lot of everyday foods from your diet can increase your risk of micronutrient deficiencies such as B vitamins.
Gluten free products are often highly processed so may not be any healthier than their gluten containing counterparts; they’re often more expensive than regular options.
Some research also suggests that avoiding gluten for a long time can make your body less capable of digesting it and subsequently lead to digestive issues.
Healthy eating should be fun and enjoyable, and while gluten free diets are necessary in some cases, not everyone needs to exclude it from their diet to feel healthy. If you have symptoms that concern you, speak to your doctor and work through a diagnosis with them.
Alice Morgan is a third year nutrition student at Oxford Brookes University, with an interest in all things gut health. You can find Alice on LinkedIn at alicemorgan99.
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