‘Gluten is bad for you’: Is the health trend a myth?

Gluten-free products are the latest trends in the world of mainstream nutrition

Racha Adib

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Gluten-free products are the latest trends in the world of mainstream nutrition. Following fats in the 1990s, and carbs more recently, it’s now time for gluten to become the latest dietary villain to blame for almost everything wrong with your health – weight gain, indigestion, bloating, low energy levels you name it.

So what’s the deal with gluten? Could it be that suddenly we’ve all developed some form of gluten intolerance, or have scientists suddenly discovered that it has been really bad for us all along? My humble judgment is it’s all in the perception of the mind, but read on and find out for yourself.

First off, what is gluten?

Everywhere you look, people are talking about gluten so if you still don’t know what it is, you were either too embarrassed to ask, or you asked but you just never got a decent reply. Very simply, gluten is the protein found in wheat and related grains like rye, barley, and bulgur. Gluten gives pasta, cakes, and breads that chewy texture we all crave.

Who should follow a gluten free diet?

A gluten free diet is essential for people who suffer from celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disease which is often left undetected. When celiac patients ingest gluten, the body reacts poorly and attacks the lining of the small intestine. The reaction flattens villi which are tiny finger-like protrusions lining the intestinal wall and are responsible for the absorption of nutrients. As a result, with time the patient develops diarrhea, anemia, bone pain, and a severe skin rash. The treatment, therefore, is to avoid gluten altogether, meaning not even one pinch, because any amount can trigger those unwanted reactions.

How can you know if you have Celiac disease?

The only way is to be tested. If you think you may have gluten intolerance, then visit a doctor and ask for a diagnosis. The doctor will first undergo a screening which is typically a blood test that detects antibodies related to an abnormal immune response. If your test is positive, a biopsy of the small intestine is performed to confirm inflammation in the lining of the small intestines. If it’s negative, then you may enjoy going back to eating gluten.

So what’s wrong with the rest of us trying a gluten-free diet to see how we feel?

If you think following a gluten-free diet will improve your physical and mental health, there is very limited research to substantiate your beliefs. According to a study in January 2013, self diagnosed gluten sensitivity resulting in feeling better after cutting out gluten is the result of your mind playing tricks on you. It’s a placebo effect – so if you believe you’re going to feel better after removing gluten, then yes you will.

Going gluten free has its risks as well. There’s little point in taking this risk unless you truly have gluten intolerance. A gluten free diet means saying no to many nutritious foods such as whole grains which pack important B vitamins, iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium, and fiber. Whole grains may help lower heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. On the other hand, gluten free products are generally lower in a wide range of nutrients and don’t offer the same protective effects.

Moreover, contrary to your hopes, you may be prone to gaining weight on a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free products tend to pack more calories, sugar and fat to make up for the loss of gluten.

And they have yet another drawback – it’s expensive. Gluten free products such as pasta, bread, and biscuits are almost twice to three times more expensive than conventional products so why pay the extra price?

It’s high time we realized that the gluten-free diet is another fad in the world of nutrition, and we can only assume it will fade out just like the rest of them. Always seek an expert opinion, and if you think you have a problem then you should simply get tested.