Thu, 7 Jun, 2018Danielle McCarthy

Should you go gluten-free? A dietitian weighs in

Should you go gluten-free? A dietitian weighs in

This decade has seen the rise of a new "food fiend" – gluten. With the jury out on fat, and sugar having solidified its place in the "Food Hall of Shame", gluten is the new food component to be villainised.

But what exactly is gluten, why is it getting a bad rep and does the general public need to be worried about eating it?

The World Health Organisation describes gluten as "the rubbery protein mass that remains when wheat dough is washed to remove starch".

Gluten is present in wheat, rye, and barley and is used widely in food processing to give dough the desired baking properties, add flavours, and improve texture. It is naturally present in the make-up of these grains and is not an additive. 

There seem to be three different types of people who are avoiding gluten in our society: 1) those that have the diagnosed condition Coeliac disease, 2) those that perceive themselves to have Non Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) and 3) those people of the general public that, despite not having any health condition, have cut out gluten (often alongside other foods such as dairy etc.) on a path to purifying their diet.

There is a danger here as each of these three groups of people have very different rationale and levels of gluten restriction.

By grouping them all together, society risks treating those with Coeliac disease in the same way as those who just try to avoid gluten as much as possible, which can have serious consequences. 

Coeliac disease is a serious illness where the body's immune system attacks itself when gluten is eaten.

This causes damage to the lining of the gut and means that the body cannot properly absorb nutrients from food. Coeliac disease is not a food allergy or intolerance, it is an autoimmune disease.

Even traces or crumbs of gluten can lead to serious gastrointestinal symptoms, and long-term inclusion of gluten can lead to increased risk of multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis and infertility. 

NCGS on the other hand is a less well understood condition where the body experiences similar symptoms to Coeliac disease but does not make antibodies to gluten.

It is still being debated whether the gastrointestinal symptoms are caused by gluten or by certain carbohydrates in food (called FODMAPs).

This group of people do not have the same long-term health risk as those with coeliac disease and rarely need to restrict their gluten intake to the same degree. 

Finally, the "diet-purifying" group are making the choice to eliminate gluten, not due to immediate health risks, but for perceived benefits to their health in the future.

It is important to remember that when we make the conscious decision to cut out certain foods, there can be implications to our nutrient intake.

It has been noted that diets low in gluten also tend to be low in fibre intake, due to restrictions on wholegrain carbohydrates.

Fibre has many known health benefits, such as heart health, maintaining a healthy bowel and controlling blood sugars.

Switching to gluten-free can also be very expensive and can lead to some anxiety when socialising and eating out.

Overall, most people have free choice over what they eat and going gluten-free is not harmful provided fibre and vitamin intakes are maintained by eating from other food groups, such as fruit and vegetables. 

To summarise, gluten is not a harmful food component for the general public and it is present in foods that contain fibre and nutrients which are actually beneficial to our body.

However, for people with Coeliac disease, gluten must be strictly removed from the diet. 

Being aware of the differences will mean you can relate to and cater for all three groups appropriately, should you ever have to cook for them.

Written by Niamh O'Sullivan. Republished with permission of