If your local supermarket seems to be overflowing with gluten-free products, it’s not just your imagination. The benefits of following a gluten-free diet however may well be.
A gluten-free diet is essential for people suffering with ‘celiac disease’, an autoimmune digestive disorder which affects the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. About 15% of the UK population suffer with this. Celiac disease is now more common than ever: a 2009 study published in the journal Gastroenterology found that the rates of undiagnosed celiac disease have increased dramatically over the last 50 years. How much if this is down to more awareness of the condition and /or improving diagnostics is unclear. For suffers of the disease, ingesting gluten can cause significant digestive problems and even malnutrition.
For many health-conscious people who do not suffer with celiac disease, ‘going gluten-free’ has become something of a trend. Accordingly, the gluten-free food and beverage industry grew at an annual rate of 30% between 2006 and 2010, and sales are expected to exceed £1 billion by 2015.
While many shops have begun to stock entire gluten-free sections, plenty of people have been conned by creative marketing and are confused about what gluten actually is. So is a gluten-free diet right for you? Debunking these four common gluten-free myths may hold the answer:
1. Gluten-free means carb-free.
Gluten is a protein found in certain grains, including wheat, barley, and rye. Any food product that includes these grains is NOT gluten-free. However, simply eliminating these grains from packaged food does not mean it is free of carbohydrates. Gluten-free grains such as rice, corn, quinoa and buckwheat have about the same amount of carbohydrates as the grains that contain gluten. Also, many starchy vegetables such as potatoes and beans are also naturally gluten-free. These contain high amounts of carbohydrates, as do fruits, juices and dairy products. If you are trying to scale back on your total carb intake, going gluten-free does not necessarily achieve that.
2. Going gluten-free makes you lose weight.
Many people who go gluten-free do tend to lose weight, but only because they eliminate foods such as cake, cookies, and pasta from their diets. If you cut out these calorie-laden products, you will obviously lose weight, but it will not be related to the gluten. It is still possible to overdo it on the gluten-free products. While they may not contain gluten, they can and often do contain similar amounts of fat, sugar, and calories as their gluten-rich counterparts.
3. Gluten-free diets are healthier than those that contain gluten.
People who follow a gluten-free diet will typically re-examine their entire diet, which is why a gluten-free diet often ends up being healthier. A balanced diet including whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables should be naturally low in gluten, but when eaten in moderation, whole grains containing gluten are an excellent source of nutrients. This includes B-vitamins and fibre, which will help you feel full, control blood sugar, and play a crucial role in proper digestion. If you are already a fan of grains that contain gluten, and have no medical reason to avoid them, then there is no reason that you should. You should always watch your portion sizes when eating grains—whether they contain gluten or not is irrelevant.
4. Gluten-free means flavour-free.
Gluten is often hidden in sauces and dressings that you would never suspect, so gluten-free people should take care. While this may sound bland, there are many gluten-free ways to add flavour to food. Relying on fresh, whole foods (as opposed to packaged or prepared foods) is the best way to cut out gluten and maintain flavour. Homemade tomato sauce, vinegars, spices, and herbs can all be made gluten-free with relative ease.