Just a decade ago, you’d be forgiven for thinking “gluten” was something to do with bum muscles. Now it’s part of mainstream menu vernacular – you can get everything from gluten-free pizza bases to biscuits, since G-free eating is said to contribute to increased energy, thinner thighs and reduced belly bloat. But before you hop on the bandwagon, read this.
HEALTHY RECIPES: GLUTEN-FREE RECIPES1. What is gluten?
It’s a protein in the grains wheat, barley and rye. Most of us unknowingly have a crush on it, since it’s what makes dough chewy, bread spongy and sauce thick. But to those with coeliac (seel-ee-ak) disease, gluten is evil – their bodies regard it as a malicious invader and mount an immune reaction, says Dr Alessio Fasano, co-author of Fast Facts: Celiac Disease. This immune response ends up damaging the small intestine, causing gastrointestinal distress and sometimes intestinal cancers, infertility and osteoporosis.
About 1 in 100 Aussies are coeliacs, according to the Coeliac Society, yet up to 157,000 remain undiagnosed. And a related problem is emerging: Monash University researchers have just confirmed people can be gluten intolerant without having coeliac disease. Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity can lead to similar symptoms – pain, bloating, gut issues, extreme tiredness – but without the intestinal damage.2. Why the health hype?
Thanks to foods marketed as gluten-free, people are shunning the protein in the hope it’ll treat non-coeliac conditions, including migraines, muscle pain and chronic fatigue. Some have found relief, but that doesn’t mean a gluten-free diet is a cure-all. There’s also a view that gluten snubbing leads to weight loss. “But there’s nothing magical about a gluten-free diet that’s going to help you lose weight,” says gastroenterologist Dr Mark DeMeo. What’s really at work: gluten-free dining limits the number of foods you can eat, so you’re less likely to overeat, says dietitian Shelley Case, author of Gluten-Free Diet.
But it can backfire: “Without gluten to bind food together, food manufacturers often use more fat and sugar to make the product more palatable,” says Case.3. Should you go gluten-free?
If you have coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity, you have to. But if you just want to give the diet a spin, consider this: it’s a giant pain in the gluteus. Gluten’s added to everything from salad dressing to soy sauce, and gluten rejecters may miss out on iron, B vitamins and fibre. “Gluten-free doesn’t necessarily equal healthy,” says Case. This is where careful planning comes in, which may explain why some feel so good when they go G-free – they’re choosing real food over packaged fare. “If you skip the gluten-free goodies and focus on fruits, vegies, lean protein, dairy and gluten-free grains, this can be a very healthy way of eating,” says dietitian Marlisa Brown, author of Gluten-Free, Hassle Free. “But you can’t just wing it.”