Gluten free diets have gained substantial popularity over the last decade. These diets come and go as quickly as the shoes in the display window get replaced. From fat-free, to sugar-free, the elimination of certain foods seems to promise a quick-fix to weight loss, feeling more energetic and prevent cardiovascular disease. The reasons for reducing gluten likely stem from the perception that gluten carries adverse health effects…
“Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to the damage of the intestine. It is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide.” – Celiac Disease Foundation
Yes, it triggers inflammation and intestinal damage in people with celiac disease. A condition which affects approximately 1% of the Canadian population.For those living with celiac disease, this immune response leads to damage on the villi, small finger-like projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption (Celiac Disease Foundation, 2017). When the villi is damaged, nutrients are no longer absorbed properly and can lead to long term health conditions such as iron-deficiency anemia, early onset of osteoporosis, lactose intolerance, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and more. Hence it makes sense for those living with celiac to adhere to a gluten-free lifestyle. But is it beneficial for an individual without a celiac diagnosis?
What is Gluten?
First, we must know what gluten is. Gluten is a water-insoluble protein found in wheat ( It is what allows bread to rise and hold structure), barley (yes, that includes beer!), and rye. It forms when water is added: the two proteins in the flour called glutenin and gliadin become flexible and mixing or kneading the dough creates chemical bonds that allow for the formation of gluten – a very elastic substance. Because of its elastic characteristics, it can be inflated with gas and steam as dough rises to allow bread baking in the oven to have the texture and structure it does. For anyone who would like a visual explanation, check-out this video (Science: What is Gluten? Here’s How to See and Feel Gluten).
However, gluten does not stop just at bread and beer. It is found in bulgur, couscous, durum or semolina wheat (hence, many pastas), Kamut, spelt, triticale. It may also be found in sausages and veggie meat, flavoured nuts and chips, energy bars, creamy soups, candy, salad dressings, marinades and soy sauce. So one can appreciate the efforts someone living with celiac disease has to put in to meal planning to ensure adequate nutrition. And let’s not forget cross-contamination of foods and the mark-up in costs for gluten-free products.
To Gluten or Not to Gluten?
So, the big question. Is there any scientific evidence behind the benefits of adhering to a gluten-free lifestyle for those living without celiac disease?
Gluten-containing foods are often rich in nutrients such as fibre when minimally processed. Fibre is known for many heart-healthy benefits: they slow digestion, keeping us more satisfied, aid with glycemic (blood sugar) control, and soluble fibre is known to reduce blood cholesterol. Moreover, not to forget that in Canada, wheat flour is fortified with folic acid and iron). Gluten free counterparts, on the other hand, often are processed with added sugar and fats to compensate for texture and flavour (so be sure to read the labels, gluten free doesn’t always mean it is a better choice).
So whether or not there a benefit in adhering to a long term gluten free diet really depends what you are replacing the gluten-containing foods with!
So whether you choose to go gluten-free by personal preference or are required do adhere because of a medical condition, be sure to replace it with a minimally processed grain or starch. Fill your plate with wholesome foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, and lean protein – foods that are recommended to make up the majority of your plate whether you’re gluten free or not.
Eating gluten-free does not have to be boring and highly processed or expensive. There are many delicious, naturally gluten-free whole grains and starches we can all experiment more with: try amaranth, quinoa, cassava, millet, chia, flax, beans, sorghum, buckwheat, rice, oats (due to cross-contamination, for those with celiac disease, be sure to read that it is “gluten-free oats”) to name a few…. what are your favourites?
Need some inspiration to start experimenting? Try this Tabouleh recipe (with a gluten-free option) I had created for Dietitians of Canada’s Nutrition Month booth at a Farmer’s Market!
If you’re interested in some of the latest scientific evidence, see BMJ article that looked at prospective cohort study on whether or not a gluten free diet had an effect on cardiovascular health. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j1892 (Published 02 May 2017)
Celiac Disease Foundation (2017). “What is Celiac Disease?” https://celiac.org/celiac-disease/understanding-celiac-disease-2/what-is-celiac-disease/
Celiac Disease Foundation (2017). “What Can I Eat?” https://celiac.org/live-gluten-free/glutenfreediet/food-options/
Eat Right Ontario (2016). “Fibre and Gluten Free” Diet. https://www.eatrightontario.ca/en/Articles/Food-allergies/intolerances/Fibre-and-the-gluten-free-diet.aspx
Eat Right Ontario (2016). “Eating Well with Celiac Disease.” https://www.eatrightontario.ca/en/Articles/Celiac-disease/Eating-well-with-celiac-disease.aspx