The Problem With Gluten Free Diets

Bread 3This post marks the advent of a new feature on my blog for 2018; a series of posts titled ‘The Problem with…’ which aim to analyse and potentially pick apart current food trends. Before I say anything, I feel it is necessary to tell you that I have coeliac disease myself, a serious auto-immune disease which means I cannot eat gluten, and if I do, I will become very ill. It is thought that coeliac disease affects about 1 in 100 people in the UK, although huge amounts of people remain undiagnosed.

This therefore makes it a source of personal frustration that a diet that I have to religiously maintain for medical reasons has become a fashionable and ‘healthy’ lifestyle choice for the masses. A gluten free diet is necessary for my long-term health but it is not something that that I enjoy. I miss gluten – desperately. I may have been only three when I was diagnosed, but I had already encountered the joys of hot crusty rolls, yeasty, soft doughnuts, buttery croissants and pastries, warm char siu buns…the list of now tragically forbidden foods goes on and on. And so why has it become popular to voluntarily prohibit something that is so delicious?

Perhaps a desire to lose weight may answer the above question. Ultimately, cutting out gluten does not lead to weight loss. This false link was probably born out of fad carb-free diet crazes from the 90s such as the Atkins diet, but clearly carbohydrates and gluten are not the same thing. In fact, many gluten free branded products such as bread, biscuits and cakes are actually more calorific that the original product, as they’re pumped with additional sugar, fats and stabilisers in a bid to mimic the properties and textures of gluten. On a practical level, gluten free products are also far more expensive; whilst a regular sliced loaf would cost around 80p, a gluten free loaf will cost around £3.00 (the NHS consequently offers GF bread, pasta and flour on subscription for those with coeliac disease).

Unfortunately, it seems that there is a lot of misinformation when it comes to gluten. I feel sure that if you asked those who followed a gluten free diet what gluten actually is, the majority wouldn’t be able to tell you (for those interested, it’s a protein form found in wheat, barley and rye). Indeed, most people who claim to be on a gluten free diet actually aren’t, either through ignorance and hypocrisy. On a personal level, I have become hugely frustrated in the past when people who claim to be following a gluten free diet continue to consume things such as beer, whisky, soy sauce, fruit squash and flavoured crisps, all foods which would be ruinous for a coeliac.

Contrary to what we’re told by the media, a gluten-free diet is not healthy. As Dr Michael Greger writes ‘Just because some people have a peanut allergy doesn’t mean everyone should avoid peanuts’. It is not recommended for the general public to follow a gluten free diet unless absolutely necessary, and anyone who does take this decision should consult a doctor before eliminating gluten from their diet. In fact, cutting gluten out of your diet will most often have an adverse effect on your health; without gluten, an individual can very easily become significantly deficient in both fibre and iron (I myself have suffered from anaemia in the past). Indeed, some studies have tentatively suggested that there are higher rates of heart disease in people who eat a gluten free diet. Perhaps most significant is the effect that a gluten free diet has on your microbiome and immune system. A recent Spanish study found that a month on a gluten-free diet impairs our gut flora, potentially setting those on gluten-free diets up for an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in their intestines. Gluten itself may also boost immune function; after less than a week on added gluten protein, subjects experienced notably increased natural killer cell activity, which could even improve our body’s ability to fight viral infections and cancer. In a different study, bread with high gluten content was found to improve triglyceride levels better than regular gluten bread. This anti-gluten epidemic is particularly concerning given that most people in the UK aren’t eating enough fibre anyway. Gluten-filled whole grains – such as wheat, spelt, barley and rye – are rich in fiber, providing diversity for microbes in the gut. Not only this, but they are also linked to reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases.

Furthermore, the upsurge of the gluten-free trend seems to have undermined the seriousness of coeliac disease. Now that the phrase ‘Gluten Free’ is thrown around fairly flippantly – hundreds of products (even shampoo) are now branded ‘Gluten Free’ to boost their selling power – it doesn’t always guarantee that there is no risk of cross contamination, especially in restaurants. Given that even 20 parts per million can be toxic to a coeliac, it’s all too easy for food to become contaminated and subsequently hugely harmful for a coeliac. The phrase ‘Gluten free’ now has connotations of wellbeing and weight loss, rather than as a medical indicator. Whilst some restaurant chains – such as Pizza Express and Cote Brasserie – are markedly aware and cautious when it comes to cross contamination and serving safe food to coeliacs (thus earning them official Coeliac UK accreditation), the majority don’t take the necessary precautions to ensure food is actually gluten-free, rather than just safe for those with ‘intolerances’.

Having said all of this, there is a recognised condition called ‘gluten sensitivity’, although it’s medical credibility is still sketchy, and little is understood of it. Although 15% of people believe that they have a mild version of this, interestingly, a study that tested and retested a number of these ‘sufferers’ with dummy foods found that the majority of those who were ‘intolerant’ were not found to have any difficulty eating or digesting gluten. I do understand that there are people who genuinely do feel sluggish and bloated after consuming gluten. Whilst many doctors have conceded that more research is to be done on this sector, to me, the main problem seems to be not the gluten itself, but the highly-processed gluten-containing foods that people are eating.

It’s not hard to see that excessively processed ‘plastic’ supermarket white, sliced bread or shop-bought cakes are damaging for the digestive system and will leave many feeling bloated and lethargic. Alternatively, as I mentioned before, unprocessed, whole and unrefined grains such as spelt and rye, along with things like oats and sourdough bread, have a high glycaemic index and are actively beneficial for gut health, blood pressure, weight control.

Exclusion diets are never healthy but ultimately there will always be fad diets and new ‘toxic’ foods to avoid (in the 1980s it was MSG, and salt in the 00s). I can only hope that with a better understanding of gluten and what it does, people will begin to recognise that health reports from the media are often misinformed and distorted. Gluten is not the enemy; it is not ‘dirty’ and cutting it out will not make your diet ‘clean’.