Sluggishness and weight gain has been blamed on an insidious substance hiding in wheat and many other common grains: gluten. Avoiding gluten has become big business. The US set the trend, but all you need to do is scan the shelves at our local supermarkets to see that we’re not far behind.
Have most common wholegrains been acting as insidious nutritional double agents all these years? Or are they really essential components of a healthy diet? Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff.
What is gluten, anyway? And how does it affect the body?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, as well as in many common food additives. It’s what gives dough its elasticity and baked goods their satisfying chewiness. But for people with coeliac disease – a type of auto-immune disorder – eating foods that contain gluten can lead to a cascade of nasty reactions, including damage to the small intestine, poor nutrient absorption, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, bloating, anaemia and fatigue. Coeliac disease is surprisingly common, affecting about one in every 133 people, according to an often-cited 2003 study from the University of Maryland Centre for Coeliac Research.
There is no cure for coeliac disease and no drugs that can treat it; you can only manage the condition, by sticking to a gluten-free diet for the rest of your life. Even if you don’t have coeliac disease, gluten may still be bad for you, says registered dietician Lara Field at the University of Chicago’s coeliac disease centre. A rising percentage of people consider themselves “gluten-sensitive”. “These people may have a food intolerance or experience many coeliac-type symptoms after consuming foods that contain gluten,” says Field. Some may have a form of wheat allergy. If you think you may have symptoms of a gluten intolerance, ask your doctor about scheduling a blood test to find out for sure.
Should I avoid eating gluten even if I don’t have problems with it?
Gluten is also shunned by another group: people who simply think gluten encourages weight gain and who claim to feel more energetic when they don’t consume it. They say humans didn’t evolve the ability to digest certain domesticated grains containing gluten, and that avoiding gluten leads to more energy, better absorption of nutrients and loss of excess weight. Allen Lim, a former exercise physiologist for the former professional cycling team Garmin-Transitions, believes that going gluten-free has helped his team perform at a higher level. So does Danielson, who, like any competitive cyclist, burns – and eats – an immense number of kilojoules and pays close attention to what seems to work.
“After I started the diet, I had better results. I didn’t feel as fatigued, and my recovery period was quicker,” says Danielson, who puts in six-plus hours during a typical training session.But this is anecdotal evidence; mainstream research still hasn’t substantiated the claims of those who believe gluten is bad for everyone. “There is no strong scientific evidence to support the assertion that avoiding gluten leads to benefits for the general population,” says registered dietician Tricia Thompson, author of The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide and the website www.glutenfreedietitian.com.
Still, cutting out gluten can lead to weight loss – but not for the reason gluten-free advocates think. A strict gluten-free diet forces you to stay away from some refined carbohydrates that can lead to weight gain, Field explains. And that is where the weight-loss secret lies. Gluten is found in many of the familiar weight-gain culprits: pizza, beer, burgers. “Gluten itself probably isn’t the reason you’ve packed on kilos,” says Field. “Eating too many refined carbohydrates is what expands your waistline.” Commit to staying gluten-free and your food choices can become a snapshot of healthy eating – fruits, vegetables, brown rice, seeds and nuts, along with meat, fish, eggs and milk products.Avoiding gluten also means you’re likely to adopt other wholegrains and flours that lack gluten.
These aren’t necessarily healthier but consuming a wider range of grains gives you even more nutritional variety in your diet. That’s another good thing.
I need to drop kilos. Is a gluten-free diet worth a shot?
A gluten-free diet can work, but dealing with the diet’s restrictions can be daunting. “You have to commit to a true lifestyle change, and that can be tough,” says Edward Abramson, author of Emotional Eating. But the notion of a panacea for excess weight remains seductive, and that may be part of the appeal of the gluten-free movement, says Michael Lowe, a professor of psychology who specialises in nutritional approaches to weight loss. It sounds simple:
if I do this one thing, then I will see the results I’m after. “That’s the driving appeal of elimination diets,” Lowe says.Ironically, the boom in gluten-free products isn’t necessarily helpful to those looking to lose weight. “You can buy gluten-free versions of practically every type of wheat-based food,” Thompson says. But here’s the catch: healthy-sounding gluten-free items often contain just as many kilojoules as the originals. “People see ‘gluten- free’ and think they can down an entire box of gluten-free biscuits with no repercussions,” says Field.
So even if you stick to a gluten-free diet, it can actually lead to weight gain.
A 2006 study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology followed 188 people with coeliac disease on a gluten-free diet for two years and discovered that 81% of them gained weight. If you do give up gluten, use your new eating plan as a lens to re-examine your diet – and your life. “I became more dedicated and took a more professional approach to my training when I went gluten-free,” Danielson says.
“I couldn’t get lazy and down whole pizzas. I had to focus on putting better food in my body, and this made me realise how much my eating habits off the bike affected my performance on it.” Mindful eating is key. After all, “you don’t need to go gluten-free to avoid refined processed carbs,” says Thompson.