Healthy Hype? A closer look at gluten-free diets

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Going gluten-free has occupied the mainstream food-focused vernacular for several years, but now its health credentials are increasingly being placed under the proverbial microscope. Here, Josh Francis takes a closer inspection…

Before diving into the murky waters of pros vs cons, however, a critical distinction must be made. And that means dabbling in a little science (only a little, promise).

Gluten – a protein originating in rye, barley and wheat that lends doughy produce its elasticity – manifests itself in all manner of everyday foodstuffs, as well as some drinks and even cosmetics. But it initiates an immune reaction in people affected by coeliac disease – about one in every one-hundred Britons. This means gluten damages the small intestine lining, with potentially severe consequences, including infertility and seizures. Gluten sensitivity is similar but less severe, with the intestine remaining unaffected by the protein.

Over the past several years, however, the uptake of gluten-free lifestyles based on supposed health benefits, instead of medical needs, has skyrocketed; around eight per cent of Brits are said to be followers. Indeed, abandoning the traditional bread-bin has been advocated by both health whizzes (like the Hemsley sisters) and hip celebs (think Gwyneth Paltrow) as another string to the ‘clean’ eating bow, with purported benefits ranging from weight-loss to smoother skin.

For coeliacs and those with gluten sensitivity, the necessity of staying away from gluten is obvious; less apparent is the dramatic rise in health-driven abstinence, despite a dearth of proof that it produces the aforementioned effects. Arguably, wellness figureheads who live by a gluten-free mantra have made it a mesmeric trend, more fashion label than eating habit. Indeed, in 2016 Zara even produced a t-shirt inscribed with the inquisition, “Are you gluten-free?”, until a bitter backlash by coeliacs prompted its withdrawal. Moreover, with gluten-enriched substances appearing in various cosmetics, brands are increasingly hopping aboard, even crafting quinoa-based alternatives.

But it’s not all health-conscious celebs. Many pro-cycling teams are now pursuing gluten-free regimes, while tennis maestro Novak Djokovick, who is gluten-sensitive, swears by the performance benefits. Surprisingly, however, the evidential basis for this shift seems limited, at best.

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A central tenet underpinning the anti-gluten movement is that, as humanoids, we’re not built to digest it. But research from the University of Utah indicates our ancestors were fuelling-up on wheat 3.5 million years ago, eons before we began to feast around the primordial hog-roast. Another claim that cutting gluten can improve heart vitality finds no support from a Harvard study, which analysed over 100,000 individuals across a 26-year period.

Indeed, for those without medical cause, the scientific compass appears to swing towards the risks, rather than rewards, of going gluten-free. Importantly, cutting out carbohydrates like bread may diminish uptake of whole grains which promote a healthy heart and provide quality dietary fibre. Meanwhile, barley and wheat are a source of inulin, a prebiotic substance that aids your gut (another hot topic in the world of wellness), while a 2017 analysis suggests limiting or purging gluten entirely may elevate the danger of Type-2 diabetes by up to thirteen percent.

Opting for gluten-less eating may well result in weight-loss, as regular processed foods and sweet treats are off the cards. However, with cakes and bakes now readily available in gluten-free incarnations, this could actually result in additional pounds, as many free-from products have greater quantities of fat and sugar to compensate for banished gluten. A recent paper from the University of Hertfordshire found most gluten-free options (the humble cracker being the exception) in UK supermarkets were nutritionally weaker than their counterparts; what’s more, they were up to two and a half times pricier – worse for waistline and wallet alike.

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Ultimately, a gluten-free diet is, as mentioned, unavoidable for coeliacs. With the possibility of government-led cuts to gluten-free prescriptions, the supermarket prices alluded to above are concerning. What’s more, as highlighted by the Zara t-shirt debacle, the ‘fashion-isation’ of booting gluten – ostentatiously proclaimed as a ‘cleanser’ for the soul – risks belittling what is, lest we forget, a medical issue.

Overall, it seems clear there is no real evidence reinforcing gluten-free health-kicks; of course, as in life generally, there are shades of grey, but the overwhelming consensus points to the advantages of retaining gluten as part of a well-balanced, everything-in-moderation kind-of lifestyle. However, with supermarket shelves wheezing under the rise in free-from fare, and restaurants ever-more attending to wheat-wary customers, gluten-free is likely to continue to be part of the gastronomic conversation. Whatever your view, just avoid sticking it on a t-shirt.

To find out more about gluten and coeliac disease, visit www.coeliac.org.uk

If you think you might have a gluten intolerance, check with your doctor first before removing it from your diet.

Featured image credit: flickr / mekelbagus

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