Considering going gluten free? Unless there is a good medically confirmed reason behind this decision, you may want to think twice.

The gluten free diet may have been around for a long while, or at least enough to make it look less like a fad and more like a real deal – however, under the celebrity-endorsed façade lies the truth, which is much more complicated than “gluten is evil and must be eradicated”. In fact, one study from Harvard demonstrated that in otherwise healthy people, eliminating gluten-containing foods such as wholegrain cereals is linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease!

Going gluten free is not for everyone, and it doesn’t have to be. Today, we would like to revisit some important myths and facts related to gluten consumption, as well as provide an overview of conditions where eliminating gluten is indeed necessary. In other words, this guide is all about

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What Is Gluten?

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Remember this viral video from a couple of years ago? Apparently, many people have no idea what gluten actually is, and yet keep actively trying to avoid it. How seemingly bizarre is that?

There is actually nothing mysterious about gluten: it’s simply a family of proteins found in grains like wheat, rye, spelt and barley. Of all gluten-containing grains, wheat is the most widely consumed.

If you love bread and other baked goods such as muffins, cakes and the like, you may be intrigued to find out that making those is much harder (but not impossible, of course) without gluten. See, when mixed with water, gluten forms a sticky substance that has a glue-like consistency, which is exactly what makes the dough fluffy and elastic. Gluten also makes products chewy, fluffy and all-around satisfying. Yum!

Unsurprisingly, this is also where the name comes from! And contrary to popular health scares, “glue-like” doesn’t actually mean you’re eating glue, just like mud cakes aren’t actually made of mud. Nothing scary…

Celiac Disease

…unless, of course, you have celiac disease.

Celiac disease (which can also be spelt as coeliac disease), is an intense condition which affects about 0.7-1% of the population, depending on the country. It’s a very severe autoimmune disorder in a form of gluten intolerance, making the body treat gluten as a foreign invader. Unfortunately, in attempt to attack and eliminate gluten, the body also attacks the lining of the gut, in this case, severely damaging the gut wall.

As the damaged gut cannot absorb the nutrients properly, nutrient deficiencies emerge, as well as anaemia, digestive issues, severe cramps and other problems, including the increased risk of many serious conditions such as cancer.

Many people do not develop digestive symptoms, at least initially, but may experience unexplained occurrences of tiredness or anaemia. Other common symptoms include bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, headache, tiredness, skin rashes, depression, weight loss and foul-smelling faeces.

As little as one breadcrumb can cause long-term damage – and

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Going gluten free

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It is impossible to self-diagnose celiac disease, and there are many other conditions with similar symptoms. Therefore, if you suspect celiac disease is a possibility – go see a doctor for further investigations instead of eliminating gluten, which may not be necessary!

If your celiac disease diagnosis is confirmed, you will likely be referred to a dietitian for further dietary education. Fear not – going gluten free may be challenging at the start, but you will adjust to it soon enough, and the unpleasant symptoms will also go away which is a plus.

In addition, with gluten-free diets on a rise, there are many foods on supermarket shelves clearly marked as gluten free, so shopping has literally never been easier.

Gluten sensitivity: On the rise or a common misdiagnosis?

Speaking of self-diagnosing, the number of people inappropriately putting themselves on low gluten and gluten free diets is on the rise, thanks to the “gluten sensitivity” myth which is nothing more than a marketing tool, according to the latest research.

Unsurprisingly, almost 70% of the self-diagnosed individuals have never been appropriately screened for celiac disease, which is the only known severe form of gluten intolerance. Even more concerningly, health practitioners are jumping on the non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) bandwagon, diagnosing their patients without ruling out other potential causes of their symptoms.

So far, dietitians are best equipped to pinpoint the signs and symptoms of celiac disease and other forms of gluten intolerance – therefore,

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Are gluten-free diets healthy for those who don’t have celiac disease?

Avoiding gluten as such doesn’t mean sabotaging a healthy diet. There are numerous ways to incorporate gluten-free food groups into a complete nutritional plan, including but not limited to:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Meat and poultry
  • Fish and seafood
  • Dairy
  • Beans, legumes, and nuts

There are also numerous healthy, nutritious gluten free grains, which are absolutely safe to consume, provided they’ve been processed without cross-contaminations. Just a few examples are:

  • Rice
  • Cassava
  • Corn (maize)
  • Soy
  • Potato
  • Tapioca
  • Beans
  • Sorghum
  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Buckwheat
  • Arrowroot
  • Amaranth
  • Teff
  • Flax
  • Chia
  • Yucca
  • And much, much more!

Gluten free diet can be just as balanced as unrestricted meal plans, with just a few adjustments, which is great news for those who have been diagnosed with celiac disease or true NCGS.

The gluten-free appeal for weight loss

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In the media, gluten free diets are often promoted as weight loss miracles. However, research shows that the weight loss is often due to cutting out entire food groups, such as cereals and bread. As these foods are a substantial part of most people’s diets, cutting them out and not substituting the lost calories simply means decreased energy consumption, which may be enough to induce weight loss.

And guess what – gluten as such has literally nothing to do with it.

As cutting out entire food groups is unsustainable, if you don’t have celiac disease and want to lose weight, it may be a better strategy to focus on portion sizes and consuming minimally processed foods instead. Fill half of your plate with steamed vegetables or salad, a quarter with lean proteins and a quarter with carbs, eat small meals more frequently and exercise more – and

A “gluten-free” label does not indicate “healthy”

“Gluten-free” doesn’t mean junk-free, sugar-free or otherwise healthy.

Therefore, remember: if you do decide to go on a gluten free diet, try to skip processed foods and focus on whole, nutritious produce, such as vegetables, fruit, lean sources of protein, dairy and gluten-free grains and legumes. This will help you build an adequate, complete diet from all the essential food groups whilst consuming a wide variety of nutrients and flavours.

Risks associated with implementation of a gluten-free diet

We’ve already mentioned above that healthy people implementing gluten-free diets are at risk of developing cardiovascular complications due to cutting out essential food groups. That’s not it, however – for example, another study found that people following long-term gluten-free diets had lower intakes of fibre, folate, niacin, B12, magnesium, iron, zinc, manganese and selenium. Another investigation shows that following a long-term gluten-free diet led to an inadequate fibre intake and could result in dietary inadequacies related to poor food choices.

Of course, gluten free diets can be healthy as discussed above – but if implemented poorly, they can be both unnecessary and harmful too!

Conclusion

If you think you may have celiac disease – contact your doctor or a dietitian as soon as possible! Only a specialist can provide an adequate diagnosis, as well as respond to your questions or concerns.

Otherwise, there is no need to eliminate gluten from your diet, especially to lose weight! Eat a variety of wholesome nutritious foods, move more and enjoy your meals, as these are much more sustainable strategies to reduce weight and maintain the progress.