Gluten. I’d be willing to bet that everyone reading this article would know someone who doesn’t tolerate gluten that well. Given how many people seem to be following a gluten-free diet, it’s understandable that you may be feeling confused about whether you should be avoiding it too. Wondering if you’ll be healthier going gluten free, even if you’re not gluten intolerant.
In a nutshell: gluten is a type of protein found in a number of grains, including wheat, rye and barley. It helps things stick together, and gives some products more ‘form’ by making things like bread more elastic. But should we be eating it?
When it comes down to it, unless you either have coeliac disease, where no amount of gluten is tolerable, or a gluten sensitivity, where a small amount is tolerable, there is no real reason to feel you should be avoiding it too. In fact, for some people who react to gluten-containing foods (bloating, wind, etc), it could actually be a compound found in the product, such as a fructan or oligosaccharide that you are reacting to (these are types of FODMAPs).
That said, does it matter if you do avoid gluten?
Gluten free is often thought to automatically equal healthy. This is not the case. Check out your local supermarket, and many of the gluten-free bars will have a similar sugar and fat content to a chocolate bar. Some gluten-free products are much lower in fibre than their gluten-containing counterparts. A gluten-free cake that is loaded with sugar, unhealthy fat, or salt is still a cake loaded with sugar, fat or salt. When it comes down to it, a gluten-free cake is still cake, no matter how much you try to dress it up.
Related article: Are your favourite healthy snacks really that healthy?
Living a gluten-free life can be a bit tricky for a few reasons, including:
- Finding gluten-free options while you’re travelling – some cities are well equipped with gluten-free options, while others don’t have it as readily available.
- Differing tastes – some of my clients talk to me about how they don’t like the taste of gluten-free bread, and find it difficult to find tasty alternatives (try these GF pastas too).
- It can be more expensive – opting for the gluten-free option often sees you paying a bit of an extra fee.
- Eating out can be difficult – although not impossible! These days there are ways around eating gluten, and restaurants and cafes are used to changing orders around to suit their customers needs.
Some gluten-free grains are certainly excellent choices, such as quinoa, buckwheat or millet, however as for gluten-containing grains, it is recommended to eat these in their natural form (as opposed to refined options) as much as possible.
So is a gluten-free diet healthier? No, not unless you are sensitive to gluten. Does it matter if you choose to eat a gluten free, even if you don’t medically need to? It is your individual choice, and whilst a gluten content doesn’t indicate overall nutritional quality of the diet, if you do choose gluten-free, avoid choosing highly processed, unhealthy fat or high sugar options of gluten-free foods. That said, the same goes for gluten-containing options. Making sensible choices, regardless of gluten content is the best way to go.
Words by accredited dietitian, Chloe Mcleod
Chloe McLeod is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Sports Dietitian passionate about motivating Australians to
create positive relationships with food and educating them on making holistic health changes so that they live the best lives they can. She specialises in sports nutrition, nutrition for arthritis and autoimmune conditions, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and food intolerances. Chloe also enjoys working with people to improve their general wellbeing, weight management and eating disorders. She has produced a cookbook, Anti-Inflammatory Eating as well as a new program for IBS, The FODMAP Challenge.