Improve your gut health, reduce bloating, lose weight, improve your skin and increase your energy levels! Yes please! We all want to feel a little bit better right? And it makes sense to blame the food we eat for the bloating, irregular poos, gas or tummy upsets we sometimes experience. Surely finding the culprit and cutting it out is the way to go. Unfortunately for must of us, it’s just not that simple.
Adding to the confusion is that ever increasing variety of foods that are gluten free version these days. This is amazing for people with coeliac disease, but for the rest of us, it’s just adding to the confusion of what on earth can I eat?! Let’s have a closer look at gluten and why these gluten free products are popping up everywhere.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a combination of two proteins (glutenin and gliadin) which are found in wheat, rye, and barley. This means they’re present in most types of bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, crackers and baked goods. They’re also found in smaller amounts in other processed foods like gravy, sauces, processed meats and beer. Cross contamination can happen in food manufacturing, where wheat and rye are processed in the same factory in as gluten-free grains. This is why oats are only sometimes labelled as gluten-free; when it can be sure that other grain particles haven’t come into contact with the oats. Gluten gives bread structure and bounce and helps pasta and cookies achieve that perfect texture.
Why is gluten unhealthy?
There is nothing unhealthy about gluten. It is found in a wide range of unhealthy processed foods (usually in the form of refined wheat flour) and natural wholefoods (wholewheat, rye and barley).
About 1% of people have a rare genetic disorder, coeliac disease. People with coeliac disease experience an autoimmune response when they eat it, which leads to symptoms such as stomach pain, bloating, diarrhoea and fatigue. In people with coeliac disease, consuming gluten actually causes the immune system to damage the small intestines causing sometimes subtle and sometimes debilitating symptoms and prevents nutrients being absorbed. Coeliac disease is screened for with a blood test and diagnosed with a small bowel biopsy.
For the rest of us, there is nothing unhealthy about gluten. For most of us, it does not trigger a stress or allergic response when consumed; cutting out gluten because some people are allergic or intolerant makes as much sense as recommending we all stop eating nuts… and it plays no role in use or storage of energy – so it won’t make you gain weight.
Will cutting out gluten help me lose weight or feel better?
No, cutting out gluten to lose weight isn’t good advice. Simply replacing wheat (or rye or barley) products with gluten-free versions is not going to help you lose weight or improve your health generally. Neither glutenin or gliadin (the two proteins that make up gluten) effect how the body uses or stores energy.
Many unhealthy refined carbohydrates contain gluten which is the real bad guys in the carbohydrate world. It isn’t the gluten that makes us feel sluggish, but at all but the refined carbohydrates in biscuits, cakes and white bread that make’s your blood sugars rise and crash. Starting a gluten-free diet forces you to cut out high energy and refined treats – which is why so many people claim the benefits of a gluten-free diet. When you cut out refined processed foods, you’re much more likely to eat less fast food, cook from scratch more often and eat more vegetables and get a wider variety of whole grains. THESE are the real changes that make you feel better and contribute to your long term health.
Is going gluten-free unhealthy?
It certainly can be. Even though you’re cutting out those refined carbohydrates, avoiding wheat, rye and barley is a very restrictive way of eating. It can be problematic if it’s not essential and you aren’t making up for the loss in fibre and wholegrains. People with special dietary requirements (like those with coeliac disease or other allergies) need to work hard to make sure they meet their nutritional requirements by eating a wide range of other unprocessed wholefoods. Studies suggest that people who follow gluten-free diets (whether medically indicated or not) end up with higher rates of chronic disease. This is probably due to missing out on the protective benefits of whole grains. It’s important to note here that for someone with Coeliac disease, this is certainly not outweighed by the risks associated by continuing eating gluten – they just need to be more rigourous in their diet planning.
There are many different ways of achieving a healthy diet. The key is to finding what works for you, if going gluten-free is what helps you swap biscuits and cake for veggies and hommus what’s the harm? Well, if we look at your diet patterns you’re actually more likely to be eating hidden sugar, fat and sodium. Many foods manufactured to be gluten-free end up with more salt, sugar and fat added to make a desirable and comparable product. Gluten-free products are in the health food aisles for people with health concerns (they need ‘sometimes’ foods too!) and not because they’re a actually a healthier option that the variety containing wheat.
Why am I bloated or experiencing tummy aches?
We have been attributing bloating, pain and diarrhoea in people without coeliac disease to “non-coeliac gluten sensitivity” or “gluten intolerance”. But, more recent evidence suggests gluten is actually unlikely to be the culprit.
Poor diet is to blame for a lot of gastrointestinal upset. Unfortunately, we are all pretty rubbish at connecting what we’ve eaten to how we feel. Studies show our recall of what we ate, how much we ate and when – is terrible. This means that when we are asked to rate our diet, we can’t help but underestimate the quantity or frequency of unhealthy foods we eat. So we are quick to think our diet isn’t that bad – when it is bad enough to be effecting our everyday health. The most common triggers for tummy troubles and bloating are lack of fibre and water and too much fatty foods and alcohol. Simple eating more vegetables and wholegrains, and drinking more water will do wonders for your digestion. Throw regular exercise and movement throughout the day into the mix and your insides will truly be smiling.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is thought to be the cause of most clinically significant gastrointestinal upset. It is thought that the malabsorbtion of fermentable sugars (FODMAPs) found in foods such as onions, garlic and legumes may be the causing the symptoms. Thankfully, there is a solution! A low FODMAP diet will alleviate symptoms and then carefully reintroduce the troublesome foods. This is best done under the guidance of an experienced dietitian or nutritionist.
If you do believe gluten is to blame though, make an appointment to see your GP but continue to eat it. You need to have the ‘trigger’ in your system so that it can be detected and diagnosed.
In very rare occasions, persistent changes in bowel habits, blood in the stool or pain can be a sign of bowel cancer. This is why it’s so important to mention symptoms (however minor) to your GP and let them know of your dietary habits before you self diagnose and embark on a new diet ‘journey’.
- Everyone will benefit from eating less refined carbohydrates (foods made from white flour) as they’re high GI, increase your risk of chronic diseases and interfere with your energy levels.
- Minor stomach complaints can be solved by eating less processed foods, switching to wholegrains, drinking more water and keeping your portions of grains in check (check out eat for health).
- Our western diet sees a lot of wheat products, eating too much of one food is never a good thing. Try to mix it up and include other wholegrains (like brown and wild rice, bulgur, buckwheat, freekeh, corn, and quinoa – technically a seed, but a healthy grain alternative nonetheless).
- If you regularly experience tummy troubles, like bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation, have a chat to your GP before you decide to go gluten-free. Ask about a referral to a dietitian or registered nutritionist who can help you get to the bottom of your issues (pun intended) by diagnosing ceoliac disease or IBS and helping you with an appropriate diet.
As I was writing this article, I did a little bit of research to see what information was available on the internet about gluten. The amount of inaccurate, and even harmful advice I have read is alarming. Please be wary of where you get your nutrition advice from. If anyone offers you a quick fix solution, like buying a product or cutting out an entire food group or avoiding a single food permanently – without taking into account your full health history, it’s probably quackery. Ask a reputable health professional before you make any changes to your diet. Your GP, a dietitian, registered nutritionist or health nurse are good starting points. Online, use reputable organisations like the National Heart Foundation, Cancer Council or Dietitians Association of Australia. If it sounds too good to be true (or is being promoted by a celebrity chef), it’s probably BS.
Sarah Moore is a mum, and university qualified Registered Nutritionist. She has 10 years’ experience working with families to improve their health and well-being. Sarah has a simplistic and practical approach to family nutrition and wants you to know that activated unicorn berries are not the answer to your health and wellness. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram for more healthy tips and tricks.