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Is Gluten Harmful and Fattening? The Food Medic Myth Bust

Gluten is the dietary villain of this decade, just like carbohydrates were to the 90s and fat was to the 70s. Take a look at the menu of any ‘healthy’ cafe nowadays and you will struggle to find a cake or dessert that contains gluten. Many people can justify eating a cake which contains refined sugar, just because it’s gluten-free . . . so it must be healthy, right?

Increased awareness and media coverage of gluten, the good and the bad, has led to an increased availability of gluten-free products on the market. This is great news for those who have to avoid gluten for medical reasons because the availability of gluten-free alternatives makes social events much less isolating. However, it seems to have caused a wave of panic across the nation and many of us are voluntarily going gluten-free after self-diagnosing online because it’s perceived to be healthier, or because it’s simply ‘trendy’ right now.

To set the record straight: for the majority of us, gluten isn’t harmful. Gluten is essentially a family of proteins found in certain grains such as wheat, rye and barely. It gives dough that glue-like consistency which makes for the perfect soft, chewy breads, bagels and pizzas. It’s perfectly natural, but for people with coeliac disease, gluten sensitivity or the much less common skin condition, dermatitis herpetiformis, it can be harmful.

People with coeliac disease have a serious reaction to gluten where their body’s defence system mistakes the gluten as a threat and produces antibodies to fight it. This reaction damages the surface of the small bowel, interfering with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease, not a food allergy or a food intolerance. In an autoimmune disease, the immune system (the body’s defence system) mistakes something harmless, like gluten, to be harmful. Coeliac disease affects 1 in 100 people in the UK and Europe. It is diagnosed by a special blood test which checks for the antibodies to gluten, or by a biopsy of the small bowel. The only cure for the disease is a lifelong gluten-free diet.

People with coeliac disease get very sick, very quickly if they eat even the most microscopic amount of gluten. Other people may have ‘intolerances’ or ‘sensitivity’ to gluten where they suffer from some discomfort after eating gluten, such as diarrhoea and bloating, but do not actually have coeliac disease. For a long time, the medical view of gluten intolerance was black or white: either you have coeliac disease or you don’t. However, gluten sensitivity, or non coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), is becoming increasingly recognised by the healthcare profession as a separate diagnosis. NCGS is a diagnosis of exclusion, whereby people experience symptoms after eating foods containing gluten but the tests for coeliac disease are negative. The issue is that there is no formal test to diagnose NCGS, so many healthcare practitioners are still on the fence as to whether it actually exists. More and more research is being done in this area and as it stands, the existence of NCGS has neither been proven nor disproven by anyone. Personally I believe it’s hardly an all-or-nothing affair, and from reading the research and speaking to patients, it’s clear that some people really do experience physical symptoms from consuming gluten.

The wishy-washy diagnosis means that it often goes unrecognised, but nowadays my feeling is that it’s maybe over-diagnosed due to the amount of people self-diagnosing. I think part of the reason for this is because of how gluten is portrayed in the media as a toxic substance which apparently pokes holes in the lining of your gut.

If you don’t have coeliac disease and you don’t have issues with gluten, then removing gluten from your diet will have no effect on your health. I promise you that it’s not fattening in any shape or form, and it’s not going to kill you. The idea that a ‘gluten-free’ label equals healthy or nutritious is not true. Gluten-free products can be just as heavily processed as any other type of food. A brownie is still a brownie, gluten-free or not. They both have refined sugar, trans fats, additives, preservatives and flavourings – and calories. We need to focus less on cutting out foods from our diet and focus more on what we need to be including in our diets – real food.

Extracted from The Food Medic by Hazel Wallace, published by Yellow Kite, £20
Photo credit: Susan Bell