‘Gluten free’ used to be a guidance phrase for those diagnosed with coeliac disease. Nowadays, it is becoming an increasingly popular term adopted by food companies, cafes and restaurants alike, and you may have already been tempted into buying these products yourself because they appear to be the ‘healthier’ option. But aside from people that have coeliac or allergies, is the gluten free option actually a healthy choice for everyone?
What is the mystical ingredient that we hear so much about? Gluten is a protein naturally occurring in common grains such as wheat, rye, barley and oats (1). It is also added to other foods to increase protein levels or as a thickener or filling agent. Gluten is in a lot of processed food such as bread, biscuits, muesli bars, cereals, and soy sauce, and is even used in some cosmetic products such as lip balms and lipsticks. Gluten itself is not a carbohydrate, but rather a naturally occurring protein that is found in grains that are carbohydrate dense.
When people with coeliac disease consume gluten, the reaction it has within their digestive system causes damage to the lining of their small intestine, impairing their guts effectiveness at absorbing nutrients from the foods they consume (2). Symptoms of coeliac disease include abdominal pain, flatulence, nausea, and sometimes vomiting (1).
Those diagnosed with coeliac disease have to avoid gluten from all food sources as the reactions and long-term health consequences can be very severe (2).
Foods that are gluten free are almost always wheat free too, so people with wheat allergies and IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) that react to properties in wheat other than gluten, can avoid reactions when consuming these foods.
If you suffer from bloating, abdominal pain, nausea, or vomiting after consuming certain foods, consult a physician to have a test done to see whether or not you are susceptible to one of the above conditions.
Gluten free for weight loss
So is there any truth behind a gluten free diet for weight loss? The short answer is no. There have been no conclusive studies that show that a gluten free diet is effective for shifting the pounds (1). In fact, some studies have shown that for a significant proportion of overweight and obese patients with coeliac disease who have strictly adhered to a gluten-free diet, weight gain was observed (1). However, it should be noted, studies show a high-fat low-carbohydrate diet is more effective for fat loss than a low-fat high-carbohydrate diet (3). This is suggesting that if the claims of increased weight loss of a gluten free diet for people who can tolerate gluten are true, it is more likely to be the reduction in carbohydrates causing this effect than the avoidance of the gluten protein.
What is in gluten-free food?
I’m always tempted by the yummy looking ‘GF’ cakes and slices at cafes and bakeries these days. Could they possibly be healthier than the alternative? I did a quick Google search on ‘Gluten free chocolate brownie’ and the first result that I got was a recipe on the Chelsea Sugar website, here are the ingredients:
1 cup Chelsea Soft Brown Sugar
½ cup Chelsea Caster Sugar
1½ tsp vanilla essence
¾ cup gluten free flour
½ cup gluten free cocoa powder
½ tsp gluten free baking powder
½ cup walnuts or pecans, roughly chopped (optional)
Chelsea Gluten Free Rich Chocolate Icing sugar or Chelsea Gluten Free Icing Sugar.
As you can see by the ingredients list, there are a lot of refined carbohydrates in this... 490grams to be exact. This equates to 1,960 calories from carbohydrates! These types of foods and recipes are not rich in vitamins and minerals either, which are needed on a regular basis to obtain optimal health. Treat foods such as this and other high sugar low nutrient dense foods are best kept to minimal consumption for better health even if they are gluten free.
Another food that commonly sports the gluten free label is bread. What are the substitutes for wheat in bread making? If we look at the Vogel’s gluten free range, they have substituted wheat flour for tapioca or maize starch, and rice or soy flour, and the rest of the ingredients are similar or the same. Again, these refined-carb substitutes are carbohydrate dense, and not likely to be better or worse for you than wheat flour if your digestive system tolerates wheat.
So, as we dive deeper into the world of gluten free we find that there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that going gluten free for the general population is going to aid in weight loss efforts or boost your health, unless you suffer from coeliac disease, IBS or wheat allergies. If you suffer from any symptoms associated with these conditions, it is best to undergo tests to find out what it is, as consuming gluten can lead to health issue in coeliac patients.
If you’re looking to reduce your body fat and improve overall health, then a balanced diet of whole, natural and unprocessed foods should form the basis of you meals, and reducing carbohydrate consumption can also have a positive effect on your health. Yummy cakes and slices that look like ‘healthier’ options because of the gluten free label should still be considered normal ‘treat’ foods and should not be over-indulged in.
1. Gaesser, G.A., & Angadi, S.S. (2012). Gluten-Free Diet: Imprudent Dietary Advice for the General population? Journal of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 112 (9), 1330- 1333.
2. Schuppan, D. (2011). Current concepts of celiac disease pathogenesis. Gastroenterology, 199(1), 234-242.
3. Samaha, F. F, Iqbal, N., Seshadri, P. (2003) A Low-Carbohydrate as Compared with a Low-Fat Diet in Severe Obesity. The New England Journal of Medicine, 348(21), 2074-81