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Gluten-Free. Is it right for you?

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Our resident high performance nutritionist Richard Chessor has a look into Gluten in the below article. Gluten is currently enemy no.1 in the food world but does it deserve it's killer tag?

We have recently reviewed our Burger range to now include both our tasty regular burgers (containing Gluten) and their cracked black pepper Gluten Free alternative. We have also now released our totally seasoning free alternative for all those who like to add their own flavour!

So read the article below and decide which burger is for you!

"The popularity of the gluten-free diet (GFD) has soared over the past 10 years. A quick Google reveals >97,000 ‘News’ hits for Gluten Free Diet. So, are high profile celebrity testimonials and widespread media coverage enough to cement GFDs in the top spot or is this a fad soon to be thrown off the diet roundabout? Regardless of its fate, lets take a look at merits and shortcomings of the GFD.

The Background

Gluten is a protein mainly found in wheat, barley and rye. For a small few (~1% of the UK population), gluten causes significant damage to the gastrointestinal tract when the immune system attacks the gluten causing damage to the absorptive epithelium. This is known as coeliac disease and there is no cure, a coeliac sufferer must adopt a GFD or deal with significant clinical problems.
(For accurate details of coeliac disease and the role of the gluten-free diet see http://www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritionscience/allergy/wheat-intolerance-and-coeliac-disease)

So what about the 99% of us that have no clinical reason to avoid gluten? Well, there is a growing body of popular literature suggesting that gluten is to blame for a plethora of pathologies not restricted to the gastrointestinal tract such as depression, obesity, dementia and ADHD along with a host of pseudoscientific conditions. Bestselling titles such as ‘Grain Brain’ and ‘Wheat Belly’ have stimulated action in the masses and a subsequent swell in gluten-free brands and products on our supermarket shelves.
(For an overview of gluten in our diet see http://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-gluten)

However, more recently, there is a growing acceptance that ‘non-coeliac gluten sensitivity’ (NCGS) exists and may affect 5-15% of us. NCGS presents with symptoms similar to coeliac disease but in the absence of a clinical coeliac diagnosis. Avoidance of gluten improves or removes the symptoms.
(For a medical commentary of NCGS see http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7015/12/86)
(Side note: In addition to coeliac disease and NCGS, wheat allergy also exists but is rare and may not be (entirely) attributable to the gluten proteins)

So, some people must remove gluten from there diet entirely (coeliac sufferers) and some may benefit from removing or minimising it in their diet (NCGS) but what about the rest of us who have no apparent problem with gluten? Should we also follow a GFD?

Why would the masses be interested in GFDs?

Good question, to which I’m not entirely sure I know the answer.
Supporters of GFDs tend to focus the benefits of the diet to three areas; weight loss, gastrointestinal health and ‘energy’.

Weight Loss:
There is currently no evidence to suggest that a gluten-free diet is directly effective for weight loss. And why should there be? Yes, gluten is a protein and therefore yes it does contain calories but the average amount of gluten consumed in a Western diet is around 20g per day which equates to ~80kcal. So simply removing gluten alone from you diet isn’t going to make a sizeable dent in your daily energy balance.

But of course, when we remove gluten from our diet we don’t just remove a single protein; we make a significant change to most of the foods we eat (as well as some significant lifestyle changes as well). Gluten is present in many calorie dense foods and junk foods. For example, of the 38 main dishes available in a prominent high street fast-food restaurant only 3 don’t contain gluten (fries and two salad’s). Gluten is also present in many carbohydrate-rich foods such as breads, pastas and cereals. Thus, avoiding gluten may make it easier to avoid high calorie and high carbohydrate foods, which in turn may make it easier for someone to stay within their daily energy budget and lose weight.

Gastrointestinal Health:
Lets assume that following a GFD results in an improvement in gastrointestinal health (a reduction in bloating or uncomfortable bowel movements perhaps). Fantastic you may think, full steam ahead on the quinoa and rice train!
But hold on a minute, is it actually the gluten that was causing the problem in the first place? Some studies suggest that many people whom self-report NCGS and follow a GFD don’t actually have any problem digesting gluten. Instead, improvements to their gastrointestinal health on a GFD may actually be attributable to a variety of carbohydrates also found in wheat called FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols).

So, if it’s not the gluten causing the problem then a GFD is misguided and potentially puts the user at unnecessary risk or symptoms are only partially improved.

‘Energy’:
The allusive ‘energy’. The avoidance of a mid-afternoon slump, the ability to bound out of bed at 6am on a dreich winter morning.
If indeed gluten is causing damage to the gastrointestinal tract then it is likely that other nutrients in the diet are not being absorbed as efficiently as they could be. This malabsorption (particularly of carbohydrates, fat and iron) may result in tiredness and lethargy and thus avoidance of gluten may improve absorption and subsequent well-being.
So, a GFD could conceivably result in improved ‘energy levels’ throughout the day, but again it is unclear as to whether this is due to the removal of gluten or other dietary factors (e.g. a concomitant decrease in sugar and fat or an increase in fruit and vegetables?).

So What?

So if I go on a GFD I may lose weight. I may not.
I may experience less bloating after meals. I may not.
I may have more energy. I may not.
Surely it’s worth taking the chance?

Perhaps so, but a GFD is not without its risks.

First of all, it’s probably a big change to the way you approach your diet. Think about what you have eaten so far today…
Cereal, toast or sausages at breakfast? Gone.
A splash of soy sauce over your lunchtime salad? Gone.
A smearing of chutney on your Athleat burger in the evening? Gone.

Gluten hides itself in a huge range of foods and although more and more gluten-free products are readily available and the catering industry is more aware of the gluten-free customer it is still a challenge to adopt a gluten-free lifestyle.
(See http://www.liveglutenfree.co.uk/ for a blog on living a GF life)

GFDs tend to be lower in fibre, iron and calcium. Furthermore, some reports suggest that individuals following a GFD often consume more fat and sugar than those who do eat gluten. So, a GFD may not be healthier than a gluten-containing diet and if employed for a prolonged period could result in serious deficiencies in key nutrients and a compromised immune system (the very reason some individuals choose GFD in the first place!).

GFDs can also be rather expensive. Engineered GF products such as GF pasta, GF bread and GF biscuits are typically twice the price of their gluten-containing counterparts.

Elimination diets can be tricky to manage and really do need 100% adherence to ensure cause and effect can be clearly identified. 100% adherence requires detailed knowledge and often compromise, which, especially in a social eating situation, can be uncomfortable.

Finally, self-assigning any elimination diet is a risk, regardless of the presence of symptoms or not. Bypassing professional and personalised medical/dietetic advice is not recommended.

Bottom Line?

Go gluten-free if you want to. But please have a long think about why you are doing so before you embark.
Our relationships with food are complex and therefore you are the only person who can make a decision about what is ‘best’ for you.
All we ask is that you make an informed decision."

 

Comments

  • Marina
    Marina 1 Jan 1970

    Very interesting and I agree with what you are saying. I do follow a GFD but I don't think I am gluten sensitive but I do have a problem with preservatives. I ate my first sandwich in three years recently using Glenten Free bread and i was ill.I also know that there are addidives in British white flour - not listed on any packaging, that are not present in Europe. So I have eaten pastries in Spain that I wouldn't eat here. If anything comes in a jar, box or packaging - I don't eat it! This makes eating out a problem. I would love to try some of your more exotic meat but I don't know what peservative or additive is my problem so I stick to pure meat.

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