10-15 years ago it was hard, very hard in fact to find gluten free foods for those individuals who needed them. The bread options were tasteless and crumbly. Snacks were virtually impossible to find and cakes and biscuits that were available were packed full of fats and calories. Fast forward till today and we now have an entire section of major supermarkets dedicated to gluten free foods; gluten free bread options are produced by the major bread makers and it is not uncommon to see gluten free menu options at popular restaurants. Food times are a changing.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and some grains including barley and rye. It is estimated that 1% of the population have coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition which attacks the small intestine when gluten is present, for which a gluten-free diet is the primary management plan. The symptoms of coeliac disease can be very similar to that of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, with constipation, bloating, and abdominal discomfort common to both disorders. One of the main differences though, is that unlike IBS, coeliac disease means that individuals cannot tolerate any gluten, whereas individuals who suffer from IBS can have a range of symptoms that differ widely depending on levels of tolerance, stress and other external factors. There is generally not one food or nutrient that will completely fix IBS, unlike coeliac disease where it is imperative that suffers avoid all gluten in their diet.
So, is eating gluten free healthier and why do so many people bang on about it if only 1% of the population really need it? The answer is complicated. Some people prefer to eat gluten free, just as some people may prefer to eat low carb or vegan. Some people find their IBS symptoms are improved when they follow a gluten free diet, even though the actual dietary issue may be wheat not the gluten specifically. Some people may just ‘think’ that it is healthier, although this is debatable.
In general a diet free of refined grains and processed foods is healthier, and indeed eliminating your white bread, snack foods, biscuits and sauces for the sake of gluten free eating may leave you with a diet that is rich in protein, vegetables and fruit. On the other hand, if you simply replace your carbs with processed gluten free options, if anything the diet quality may even be worse, simply as gluten free carb based foods can be packed full of extra fats and refined gluten free carbs in an attempt to give these foods a starchy, bulky taste and texture.
Modern life is likely to see a continued increase in the number of autoimmune diseases such as coeliac disease as well as the need for foods that allow individuals to self-manage food intolerance. So, whether or not you have to eat gluten free, or simply choose to, it will still pay to check the ingredient lists and the carb and protein content of any packaged and processed gluten free foods that you are incorporating into your diet – just as you would if you were not eating ‘gluten free’.