Is going gluten free the best alternative?
There are a number of reasons why someone may choose to follow a ‘gluten-free’ diet, whether it is essential or just an active lifestyle choice. The most common circumstance where you would have to follow a gluten free diet is following a diagnosis of coeliac disease. disease. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease where consuming any gluten can lead to inflammation of the lining of the small intestine making it unable to absorb nutrients. Symptoms of coeliac disease include bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, tiredness and headaches. A related condition called gluten sensitivity or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity can generate similar symptoms but without the intestinal damage. These effects only happen if the person eats gluten and so a gluten free diet is the lifelong treatment. There are other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome that can affect your reaction to gluten which is more of an intolerance then an allergy. However, it is becoming more and more common that people who do not suffer from coeliac disease or an intolerance to gluten are still choosing to go ‘gluten-free’ for weight loss purposes or to just get healthier. For whatever reason someone may choose to avoid gluten, they have two options; avoid all products that contain gluten or use the wide range of gluten free alternatives that are now available.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is the name for the proteins found most commonly in wheat, barley, rye, triticale and oats. While consuming gluten can be detrimental for people with coeliac disease, there are many people with intolerances that just find gluten quite difficult to digest. A diet consisting of foods that don’t naturally contain gluten could still be considered well balanced and healthy. This would include corn, rice, potatoes in place of the grains along with food from all the other food groups: vegetables, fruits, dairy products, eggs and meat. Keep in mind that even though this is a varied diet you could be depriving your body of certain key nutrients. Breads and cereals are often fortified with iron, vitamin D, folic acid, riboflavin and niacin. If grain products are your main source of these nutrients you may need to consider taking a gluten free multi-vitamin to compensate for the loss.
The other alternative which many people are choosing is to eat in the same way they did before but with gluten-free alternatives replacing the original food products. This includes gluten free flours to bake with, pasta, breads and pre-made baked goods. The question is are these gluten free alternatives actually healthier than the real products?
For people with an allergy or intolerance it brings a comfort that despite their condition, they can still eat their favourite foods without becoming unwell. These people don’t have a choice whether to avoid gluten or not so these alternatives can be beneficial psychologically as the impact on their lifestyle and eating habits is less intense. People choosing to cut out gluten for lifestyle reasons may benefit in the same way. In effect by using gluten free alternatives they may feel like they are dieting without eating that differently. A lot of current research has been focused on whether the gluten free alternatives are better for you than the real thing and whether it is worth making the change to gluten free products as a lifestyle choice if you don’t suffer from a condition stopping you from eating gluten.
Recent studies estimate that around 12% of adults in the UK follow gluten free diets despite the fact that only !% suffer from coeliac disease. It is thought this is due to the assumption that gluten free alternatives are healthier than the regular products, however research shows that people using the gluten free alternatives to try and lose weight may not get the effects they want. Some gluten free alternatives are shown to contain much higher levels of saturated fats, sugar and salt with lower levels of fibre and protein than the original products Interestingly, some of the most common gluten free substitutes such as bread and pasta, can have up to three times less protein then the equivalent products containing gluten. And they can be very costly to buy. For example, on the Waitrose website, you can see that 500g of Waitrose LoveLife gluten-free spaghetti is sold for £1.89, in comparison to 500g of regular essential Waitrose spaghetti for 89p.
So, if you want to follow a gluten free diet as a lifestyle choice then it is probably best to focus your food choices on products that don’t naturally contain gluten to maintain a well-balanced diet and try to avoid the overly processed pre-made foods.