Is Gluten Bad for You? A Q&A with Leading Nutritionist Barbara Cox
If you haven’t already ventured down the gluten-free route yourself, you’ll probably have noticed the growing number of gluten-free products filling up the supermarket shelves or heard your recently enlightened friend going on (and on) about the special diet.
What is gluten? Gluten is defined by Coeliac UK as the protein found in the cereals wheat, barley and rye. It is most often found in foods like bread, pasta, cereal, cakes and more.
In the past 10 years, gluten-free foods have emerged from belonging to the niche realm of those with gluten intolerances into the mainstream, with big brands like Warburtons and Stella Artois launching their own gluten-free options. But, as the gluten-free hysteria has erupted, so have the questions from confused consumers who are beginning to wonder if gluten is bad and whether or not they should be avoiding it.
Fret no more as leading nutritionist Barbara Cox answers all your gluten-related questions in an exclusive interview with Women’s Health Magazine; an interview which we're now bringing to you!
Barbara's Interview on Gluten with Women’s Health Magazine
Q: What do you think of people going gluten free without any medical condition forcing them to do so?
My personal opinion reflects a varied response as no two clients are the same, therefore their reasons for attempting gluten-free and the results from eliminating gluten can be a different experience for everyone.
Firstly, take a look at some of the common reasons why people without a medical condition eliminate gluten, why they might actually want to try it and the myth around their personal reasons.
1. They want to lose weight
There's absolutely no evidence that simply eliminating gluten will result in weight loss. However, eating gluten-free often may cause you to be more selective in your eating habits and add more whole foods and unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and lean meats. These diet changes are often healthier and lower in calories, therefore leading to weight loss.
2. They want to reduce bloating
There are many causes of abdominal bloating, including fluid retention, irritable bowel syndrome, food intolerance, and infection. For most people, the cause of bloating may be fairly harmless and is a process of eliminating foods that cause the bloating. Chronic bloating may be related to coeliac disease so investigations need to be made with thorough blood tests or a food elimination process.
3. They want to increase their energy
Fatigue is extremely common among people with coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity, and actually if your diet reflects the regular UK diet of a limited variety of fruits and vegetables and the addition of processed foods, alcohol and lack of exercise, you’ll probably feel lethargic anyway. So again, you can increase your energy by just being aware of foods that increase energy and if eliminating gluten is part of your “trial” then it is common gossip to follow this style. However, there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim.
4. They want to increase their athletic endurance
Gluten-free diets are increasingly popular in the fitness community. Many athletes believe that a gluten-free diet would reduce digestive problems, which are distressingly common amongst athletes.
Research indicates that as many as 90% of distance runners, cyclists and triathletes experience occasional bloating, cramps, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms during or immediately after exercise. This could be because physical exertion diverts blood and fluids from the digestive system to areas of the body where they are needed more pressingly, such as the leg muscles.
Again, no well-designed study has yet determined whether gluten-free diets fulfilled those expectations of increased athletic endurance.
Q: How is a gluten-free diet beneficial or dangerous for these healthy people?
This is kind of answered in question one, but here’s more info for the readers:
Again, this is my opinion without personally conducting clinical trials and studies myself.
Whole grains, which contain gluten, are a good source of fibre, vitamins and minerals, and gluten-free products are often made with refined grains, are low in nutrients and taste bland (for a reason!)
If you embrace a gluten-free diet, you'll end up eating a lot of foods that are potentially stripped of nutrients. A limited gluten-free diet can be deficient in fibre, iron, folate, niacin, thiamine, calcium, vitamin B12, phosphorus and zinc due to the lack of whole grains.
However, you can eat a healthy diet without gluten, but you have to be very knowledgeable and most people aren't. People who go gluten-free may feel better because, to avoid the protein, they end up cutting out desserts and junk foods, thus losing weight. They might mistakenly attribute that to their gluten-free decision and equate gluten-free with weight loss, increased energy, etc...
Q: What are the health benefits of consuming gluten?
Whole grains are packed with nutrients including protein, fibre, B vitamins (which are super important for your nervous system!), antioxidants, and trace minerals (iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium). A diet rich in whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some forms of cancers.
Q: Why is gluten dangerous for people with medical conditions such as coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity?
Coeliac disease is an inflammatory autoimmune disease caused by both genetic and environmental factors. It impacts around 1% of the world’s population.
Simply explained, when gluten reaches the digestive tract and is exposed to the cells of the immune system, these cells mistakenly believe that it is coming from some sort of foreign invader, like a bacteria. Therefore, gluten exposure in coeliacs causes the immune system to attack both the gluten as well as the intestinal wall itself, causing pain and lowered immune system strength.
Q: Do you think healthy people should go on a gluten-free diet if they want to be healthy or skinny? Why? What could be a better option for them?
My opinion is that everyone is different and there is no One Size Fits All way of eating. I prefer to recommend an anti-inflammatory diet like in Rainbow Recipes and Eat To Be Fit, which reduces exposure to wheat but is not gluten free.