You probably think gluten-free dishes are healthier options. After all, there must be a reason why your fit, smoothie-drinking friends avoid gluten, right? But it turns out it’s not so simple.
Not for everyone…
First things first: gluten is a family of proteins that acts as a glue to hold the shape of food together. It’s commonly found in wheat products (such as breads, pastas and cereals), barley products (such as soups and beers) and rye (such as breads and beers), among a whole host of other foods. But harmless as it sounds, there are people who should avoid it.
“People should avoid gluten if they have coeliac disease,” says Jennifer Shim, a dietitian at Parkway East Hospital. “Coeliac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder. It’s a condition in which gluten triggers immune system activity that damages the lining of the small intestine. Over time, this damage prevents the absorption of nutrients from food. This may increase the risk of other malabsorption-related health issues such as anaemia or stunted growth.”
If you have coeliac disease and consume gluten, you may experience symptoms such as diarrhoea, constipation, cramping, bone or joint pain, headache and fatigue.
If left untreated, it can lead to more serious conditions including lactose intolerance, osteoporosis, infertility and certain cancers. “Coeliac disease can be fatal if untreated,” adds Jennifer.
But not always the bad guy
According to Jennifer, there’s no point in cutting gluten out of your diet if you don’t have coeliac disease.
“Claims about the general health benefits of a gluten-free diet are unfounded. The presence or absence of gluten alone does not define the quality of your diet,” she says. “In fact, some gluten-free products are lower in fibre, vitamins and minerals. What’s most important is to have a well-balanced diet. For a generally healthy individual, there is no health benefit in a gluten-free diet.”
If you suspect you have coeliac disease, Jennifer recommends seeing a doctor to get a proper diagnosis—and that you continue consuming gluten before doing so. “You should not start a gluten-free diet before getting tested and getting a diagnosis as avoiding gluten prior to the test will affect the results,” she explains.