Thinking of trying a gluten-free diet? Well, you certainly wouldn’t be alone. There is plenty of interest in trying a gluten-free diet to manage all sorts of things from gastrointestinal symptoms to inflammation and weight gain. But does it really improve health and well-being? Or is it just another diet fad? To help you make an informed decision, we cover what gluten actually is and how it affects our bodies and hopefully make it a little easier for you to answer the question of, should I go gluten-free…
What is gluten?
Gluten is, simply, a naturally occurring protein found in barley, rye, oats and wheat. The more obvious foods are bread, pasta, pizza and cereal. Gluten or gluten-containing grains can also be added to foods to create a desired texture or taste. This includes foods such as sauces, dressings, flavoured milk and other dairy products, baked goods, lollies, and packet foods. If something contains gluten or even may contain gluten, it will nearly always be clearly labelled.
Gluten doesn’t have a direct influence on human health. It’s usually undigested and simply passes through our bowels and is excreted. The grains that contain gluten, such as wheat, barley and rye, also contain other valuable nutrients such as carbohydrates, fibre, protein, antioxidants, and prebiotics, making these grains a healthy source of energy and great for our bowel and heart health.
Gluten is not found in fresh fruit or vegetables, meat or other animal proteins such as eggs, nuts and seeds, or rice.
Is gluten a carbohydrate and is it fattening?
It is very common for people to think that gluten is a carbohydrate, that it’s fattening or in some way bad for them. Despite these popular beliefs, gluten is none of these things. As mentioned above, gluten is a protein that’s found in barley, rye, oats and wheat. These grains are carbohydrates and are important nutrients with many health benefits including those for weight management.
Any weight loss that occurs with a gluten-free diet, is actually achieved through a reduction in caloric intake. When changing to a gluten-free diet, we typically remove many foods that we would commonly eat, hence we eat much less overall. So, a gluten-free diet isn’t the answer for weight loss. It’s simply a result of eating less.
Is gluten bad for me?
Gluten is a completely safe and natural protein to eat and there are no health recommendations for gluten-free diets except for those diagnosed with Coeliac Disease.
While some people will show signs of a gluten intolerance such as bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhoea, gluten doesn’t cause any particular health issues. But the presence of symptoms may impact people’s lives and avoiding large sources of gluten may result in feeling better.
Many people believe gluten-free diets are healthier. This is simply not the case. It’s important to note that just because something is gluten-free, doesn’t mean it’s healthier. In fact, gluten-free products are often lower in fibre because grains without gluten tend to be lower in fibre (rice, corn, potato etc).
How much gluten can I eat?
If you have Coeliac Disease, the answer is nil!
For everyone else, we don’t have a number or recommendation on how much is too much or not enough because gluten is not associated with poor or good health.
Some people will report feeling better with a low gluten intake. This can mean many different things and is based on personal experiments to see how much they can tolerate. Avoiding large sources of gluten often results in a lower fibre and carbohydrate intake, and we know that both are important for our heart and bowel health. While removing gluten isn’t a health concern, it often (inadvertently) leads to a lower intake of dietary fibre and increased hunger signals. If you need help finding the right balance between gluten, fibre and carbohydrate, it’s best to speak with our experienced dietitians.
Who should avoid gluten?
People diagnosed with Coeliac Disease must follow a strict gluten-free diet. This is more than just buying gluten-free bread and cereal. People with diagnosed Coeliac Disease need to read the food label of every packaged food they eat (including things like yoghurt or rice crackers).
Some people report they’re gluten-sensitive and will feel symptoms like bloating, diarrhoea or abdominal pain and cramps when eating gluten. The avoidance of gluten is purely based on an individual tolerance level and often a person will just need to avoid regular large sources of gluten to feel better, rather than needing a strict gluten-free diet.
For everyone else, gluten is a completely safe protein to eat on a regular basis.
What’s the difference between gluten-free and low-gluten diets?
There are very strict guidelines for labels to be able to claim a product is gluten-free. Especially in Australia where a product can only claim it’s gluten-free if there’s no detectable gluten. This is important for people diagnosed with Coeliac Disease as they must follow a strict gluten-free diet.
Most people will tolerate gluten with no symptoms and won’t even have to think about following a gluten-free diet.
For people with a gluten intolerance, simply avoiding large sources of gluten in a meal is likely to be enough. This means a diet that contains small amounts of gluten and food products that have “may contain gluten” on their packaging should be tolerated.
What’s the story about oats?
In Australia, we don’t allow oats on a gluten-free diet to manage Coeliac Disease. Oats contain a gluten-like protein called “avenin” and it may trigger an auto-immune response in people with Coeliac Disease. There’s also a potential for cross-contamination of oats through the food production system, therefore oats are not considered gluten-free by Australian standards.
However, if you’re simply following a low-gluten diet for other reasons then oats are absolutely safe and they’re an excellent source of a fibre called beta-glucan. Beta-glucan has been shown to lower cholesterol and helps reduce blood sugar levels.
Is gluten bad for my autoimmune, hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s Disease?
A common hypothyroid condition is Hashimoto’s Disease. This is an autoimmune condition that causes chronic inflammation of the thyroid gland. This is typically treated with medication and people are often advised to maintain their weight with diet and exercise. Many Google searches will advise following a gluten-free diet but the science has been inconclusive and certainly hasn’t been strong enough to make this a recommended strategy for all people living with Hashimoto’s disease. It’s recommended that prior to introducing a low-gluten diet, you test for Coeliac Disease, as they often go together, and the presence of Coeliac Disease would require a strict gluten-free diet.
People with hypothyroidism are at risk of weight gain. It can be more difficult to manage weight due to a lowered metabolism. The best weight management strategy remains diet and exercise. Gluten-free diets do not directly result in weight loss. Much like the carb-free diet, any weight loss is a result of eating less overall rather than the specific exclusion of either gluten or carbs.
What about alcohol and coffee?
Plain coffee with or without dairy milk and sugar is totally gluten-free.
All alcohol is gluten-free except for barley-based beer. Spirits, wines and ciders are all ok for people following a gluten-free diet. Alcoholic beverages are not required to list ingredients, Coeliac Australia does, however, have a list of endorsed gluten-free options. Of course, alcohol should be consumed in moderation, with an upper limit of 10 standard drinks per week.
If gluten isn’t causing my IBS, what is?
If you’re suffering from abdominal pain, bloating and irregular bowel habits, it’s worth checking in with your GP before starting a gluten-free diet. Simple constipation is very common and you may just need to drink more water or increase your fibre. Especially if you have been following a low-carbohydrate diet.
It could also be IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). This is a set of gastrointestinal symptoms triggered by a group of carbohydrates called FODMAPs. It would be worth discussing this with your GP, gastroenterologist and/or dietitian. You can also find information on our website about FODMAP and IBS.