The idea of going gluten-free is becoming increasingly popular all over the world. The proof lies not only in the fact that you now see more products in supermarket aisles with labels that scream “gluten-free” but also with increasing numbers of celebrities — from Miley Cyrus and Victoria Beckham to Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma — opting for a gluten-free diet for their health.
But is going gluten-free actually good for everyone’s health? We talked to Akanksha Mishra, a Nutrition and Wellness Expert associated with myUpchar, and also looked at what science has to say about going gluten-free for health. Here’s what we found out.
When your life depends on avoiding gluten
For those who don’t know, gluten is a type of protein found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. People who have celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation in and destruction of the inner lining of the small intestine, leading to malabsorption of nutrients) and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) are recommended to avoid foods with gluten.
“If you have either of these conditions, even a small amount of gluten can trigger the immune system to attack the small intestine and with repeated attacks, the small intestine loses its ability to absorb some important nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin B12 and iron,” says Mishra.
“Over time, people with untreated celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity can develop severe nutritional deficiencies and health issues such as osteoporosis, iron-deficiency anemia, and vitamin B12 deficiency. With these, you can also experience extreme fatigue, infertility, and some neurological problems.”
Mishra, who is gluten intolerant herself, suggests that if you have the symptoms of gluten allergy or sensitivity then you must consult a doctor and get diagnosed at the earliest.
“When I was diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, I was feeling bloated just after eating even a single chapati or slice of bread,” she explains.
“I had a continuous stomach upset and some tiny bumps on my hands. I consulted a gastroenterologist and he asked for an antibodies test, iron profile, and vitamin B12 blood test. He also asked me to stop wheat consumption for a week and come with all these reports. After one week, I was feeling much better without any medications (I had stopped only wheat). The test results showed that my celiac profile was normal but other parameters suggested non-celiac gluten sensitivity. So, my doctor has asked me to stop eating wheat, barley, and rye and I was given a few supplements to control the nutritional deficiency.”
Going gluten-free without a medical cause — pros and cons
While avoiding gluten when you have a diagnosed medical disorder is vital and permanent, the evidence regarding going gluten-free for any other reason is divided.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, there is little or no evidence to support the idea that going gluten-free can help weight loss or boost energy.
As per a study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism (2019), going gluten-free without a medical cause can have detrimental effects like loss of dietary fiber, deficiencies in dietary minerals and vitamins, and potential heavy metal exposure.
This study also mentions the fact that adopting a gluten-free diet can be quite heavy on the pocket and challenging because it requires the elimination of many foods. However, the study also points out that avoiding gluten may be beneficial for children with autism spectrum disorder.
Another study in Diabetes Spectrum (2017) indicates that going gluten-free can help people with type 1 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and other digestive disorders stay healthy. The same study, however, also suggests that most gluten-free foods don’t have enough fibre, and the idea that following a gluten-free diet can aid weight loss is debatable.
The challenges of going gluten-free
“Gluten insensitivity and reactions have been linked to autoimmune, digestive, and other health conditions,” says Mishra.
“So, if you are suffering from any of those, avoiding gluten can be help improve your health. But you may have to put in a little extra effort and money to find and use gluten-free products.”
In Mishra’s experience, going gluten-free can be challenging and isolating. Not only do you have to be aware of gluten in grains, breads, cereals, pasta and even desserts but also remember that gluten tends to sneak into many popular and everyday foods like sauces, vitamin and mineral supplements, some medications, and sometimes even in toothpaste.
Going gluten-free is therefore a commitment not to be taken lightly at all; it is a lifestyle instead of being just another diet. Mishra suggests the following tips for adopting a gluten-free lifestyle:
- Replace wheat, barley, rye products and shift to bajra (pearl millet), ragi (finger millet), jowar (sorghum), quinoa and rice
- Plan your meals on a weekly basis so you will have time to buy appropriate flour or bread
- As there are a lot of people diagnosed with gluten intolerance, there are a lot of gluten-free food products in the market such as quinoa bread, rice noodles, and quinoa pasta and almond flour cakes. You can opt for these or make your own at home
- There are a lot of restaurants that provide gluten-free food options so whenever you are planning to eat out, check the menu, and select the right one in advance
For more information, read our article on Gluten-free foods.
Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.