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The pros and cons of going gluten free

From packed lunches to fine patisserie treats, it feels like everyone is going gluten free. But is it a healthier option?

Before we all succumb to the food fashion police, it is worth looking at the full facts when it comes to gluten: nutritional experts caution that for many of us, cutting out gluten from our diets could do more harm than good.  

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley – it’s also found in foods like ice cream and condiments. Health experts agree that you only need to be concerned about cutting out gluten from your diet if you have a gluten allergy or celiac disease, which makes it difficult for the body to absorb necessary nutrients and can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Research suggests that about one in 1000 people have a wheat allergy, and nearly one in 100 may have celiac disease.

The downside to going gluten free

In recent years, gluten free diets are a standard among the health conscious. But cutting out gluten altogether isn’t necessarily healthier for you.

Weight gain 
Many gluten free products are high in processed carbohydrates and refined sugar, and eating these products in place of whole grains can lead to weight gain. If you don’t have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, experts advise you would be better off including in your diet a variety of high-fibre carbohydrates, such as whole-wheat barley, and rye, which can help lower cholesterol and actually improve your digestive health.

Bad gut health 
Evidence suggests that a gluten free diet may be bad news for our gut health. Going gluten free can adversely affect gut health in those without celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergy. One study found that a month on a gluten free diet may damage gut bacteria and immune function, potentially leading to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the intestines.

Nutrient deficiencies 
As a result of processing, gluten free foods are more likely to be low in essential nutrients such as calcium, fibre, iron and vitamin B12. This is where fortified foods come in to their own, such as certain breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast.

The healthy upsides to gluten 

Including gluten in your diet can help to keep you healthy and decrease your risk of developing a range of serious diseases. Whole grains containing gluten have been linked to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases.

In a study looking at the effect of wheat on the immune system, researchers found that those on added gluten protein experienced a significant increase in white blood cells responsible for fighting disease, which could be expected to improve the body’s ability to fight cancer and viral infections.  Another study by researchers at the University of Toronto, Canada, found that high gluten bread improved cholesterol levels better than regular bread containing an average amount of gluten.

The bottom line is that many of us would be better off ignoring foodie fads and sticking to a healthy, balanced diet. If you think you may have a sensitivity to gluten, make an appointment to see your doctor before making any dietary changes. Going gluten free before you take a blood test can affect the results used to diagnose celiac disease.

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