Is Gluten Public Enemy Number One?

Gluten is not the devil

The makers of South Park recently addressed the issue of gluten, and in their ‘wisdom’ they concluded that consuming gluten would make various body parts fall off. But you don’t believe them, right? People have been consuming gluten-containing grains for centuries and survived with all their limbs intact. In biblical times, the Romans and Israelites lived on a diet rich in bread and by all reports they lived relatively healthy lives. In fact, the Old Testament tells how God sent the Israelites a daily serve of manna, a bread-like foodstuff, which presumably contained, you guessed it, gluten. As far as I’m aware there was no discussion of gluten-free diets in biblical times.

Gluten has been ‘linked’ to dementia, autism, pro-inflammatory disorders, and heart disease, obesity and tummy troubles. But why does this naturally occurring protein that is found in wheat, rye, oats and barley, get such a bad rap? After all, it gives dough its elasticity, helps it to rise and gives it shape. It seems pretty innocuous, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, some would have you believe that gluten is responsible for many of our current health concerns. So what does the science say about gluten? Should it be avoided like the plague or can foods containing gluten be enjoyed as part of a normal healthy diet? 

For some time scientists have been investigating the vexing question of whether gluten is a nutritional villain. It is true that those with coeliac disease, an auto-immune disease in which the ingestion of gluten elicits a deleterious immune response, must follow a strict gluten-free diet. The symptoms of coeliac disease include severe digestive issues, skin rashes, iron deficiency, anaemia and fatigue. The only way to manage this disease is to exclude gluten from the diet. However, current epidemiological studies report that coeliac disease afflicts only one per cent of the population. So what about the rest of us, the other 99 per cent?

In short, the science shows no association between eating gluten and autism, allergies, weight gain, dementia or pro-inflammatory disorders. In fact, the Australian Dietary Guidelines, a publication devised after 55,000 peer-reviewed scientific research papers were analysed, recommends that gluten-containing foods like bread, cereals, pasta and a number of gluten-containing grains be included in our diet. There is no advice in the scientific literature that gluten be excluded by anyone other than those with coeliac disease. Despite this advice, a large number of people have been unnecessarily ditching gluten in an attempt to lose weight, boost energy, treat autism, or to feel healthier. This is based on little or no evidence other than testimonials in the general media, on Facebook or by people with no scientific or nutritional background (cue celebrity chefs).

Many of you may now ask, “Why do I feel better on a gluten-free diet”? Well, this may be the result of scrapping gluten-containing discretionary foods like cakes, sweet biscuits and sugary cereals from your diet; this will likely improve your health in general. But it’s unlikely to be a direct result of omitting gluten.

The question might also arise: “Why have my tummy symptoms disappeared after following a gluten-free diet?” Well, this may be as a result of reducing the amount of fructans in your diet. Fructans are a carbohydrate (remember that gluten is a protein) found in gluten-containing wheat and rye, as well as in a number of other foods. These carbohydrates may be malabsorbed in those with irritable bowel syndrome, leading to issues such as altered bowel habits, excessive wind and bloating. Those with a fructan intolerance may gain some symptom relief by excluding fructans from their diet. It’s best to see your doctor if you have such concerns.

So, is gluten responsible for the obesity epidemic in Australia, or for the rise in autism, diabetes, dementia, heart disease and, inflammation? No! Should we reduce our intake of gluten-containing sugary biscuits and cereals as well as cakes and pastries? Absolutely! Should we take notice of the next ‘health guru’ peddling the benefits of following a gluten-free diet? Certainly not! To suggest that removing gluten from our diet will eradicate a wide variety of diseases minimises the complex relationship between diet and disease. Touting this notion is akin to peddling bad science.

Here’s to including gluten-containing foods like porridge, muesli, bread, pasta, and the occasional beer in your diet. Gluten is not a dietary demon. Some may even say that it is heaven-sent.    

If you really want to free your diet from something harmful, free it from pseudoscience. 

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