Ever wondered about the benefits of a gluten-free diet? We give what is a popular trend for some and a necessity for others, an evidence-based overview
Wondering about the benefits of gluten-free foods? And whether you should make a fairly big change to your diet? Gluten-free options are becoming more and more mainstream in restaurants and supermarkets, which is great news for people with coeliac disease and for those diagnosed with another form of gluten intolerance. But can going gluten-free benefit the rest of us?
There are lots of different claims around the wellness community which state that giving up gluten reduces bloating, improves mood and even helps fight acne. But is there any real evidence to back up these claims and prove that it’s not just anecdotal? We’re not doctors, but we take a closer look…
SHOULD YOU GO GLUTEN-FREE?
In a word, maybe. To be more precise, even if you don’t have any diagnosed gluten intolerance, you may find that reducing your gluten intake (without necessarily going completely gluten-free) may help you with a whole range of health concerns.
The jury is still out on why exactly this may be, but the most likely explanation actually hasn’t got much to do with gluten itself and it’s more to do with the fact that high gluten intake typically goes hand-in-hand with a diet high in processed foods, sugar, and saturated fats.
Think of it this way: if excess weight, bloating, and fatigue are your concerns, then it’s likely that your gluten intake comes in the form of highly processed white bread high in sugar. People who go gluten-free tend to replace whole meals consisting of processed foods with healthier options high in vegetables and fibre, and that’s what contributes to weight loss and improves wellbeing.
There is some evidence, however, that wheat is an unusual food that our bodies may not have quite evolved to process, despite humans consuming wheat for millennia. Gluten contains proteins that the human digestive tract cannot digest fully, lacking the enzymes to do so. Moreover, recent studies have found that gluten has such a complex biological structure that it’s very difficult to pinpoint which compound may be contributing to a sensitivity in an individual person.
If you have ongoing digestive issues, especially IBS, you may find it beneficial to cut out gluten at least for some time and see if there is an improvement. If you don’t want to cut out bread completely, try eating less of it and switching to sourdough. It’s not gluten free, but the way it’s made at least partially breaks down the gluten in the flour, making it low in gluten content. Many people report that switching to sourdough bread helps with digestive issues.
Finally, will going gluten-free help you get rid of acne? There is no reliable scientific link between the two; however, if your acne is due to an autoimmune health condition or is related to digestive problems (a telltale sign is if you get breakouts on your forehead), then you should again consider significantly reducing your gluten intake.
Are You Brain-Fogged From Bread?
In my twenties, I once fell asleep at noon after eating a bagel, though there was no reason to be tired. I’d often be fuzzy-headed after a meal.
“Brain-fog” is a common sign of celiac, an auto-immune reaction, and of other kinds of sensitivity to gluten, a protein in wheat and rye.
Claire Baker, who now works for the advocacy group, Beyond Celiac, was afflicted with “brain fog” before she received her own celiac diagnosis. She was a program director at another major nonprofit and the fuzziness was affecting her productivity. “I thought there was something terribly wrong with me — couldn’t concentrate. I had no idea the problem was related to my diet, and no clue that it could be a symptom of an undiagnosed disease,” she told me.
In a new survey of patients with either celiac or gluten sensitivity, more than 70 percent said they had trouble concentrating after eating gluten. Nearly 60 percent of celiac patients (and nearly 70 percent of those with gluten sensitivity) said they became groggy. About a fifth said the symptoms showed up within a half-hour to an hour, but similar portions experienced the symptoms within the next four hours, or between one and two days later. The symptoms typically lasted a day or more.
So if you’re having trouble at work after your bagel or muffin breakfast and your sandwich at lunch, experiment with eating other foods that don’t contain gluten.
Food intolerances can also make you anxious and are linked to headaches and depression.
If you find that you can link your symptoms to gluten, don’t just go gluten-free on your own. You should get tested for celiac, a serious illness that requires monitoring. Even if you don’t have celiac, you may need help figuring out your diet. Many people get some improvement when they cut out gluten but find that other foods bother them as well. You might need to be extra careful with traditional “gassy” foods like beans and dairy.
If gluten triggers an inflammatory response, it can affect any system in your body — from your skin, to your nerves, to your brain.
One man I’ll call Tony had trouble with compulsive twitches and tics for years. The neurologists he saw couldn’t find a clear cause. One said, “This is the way God made you.”
He also was prone to becoming enraged at small irritations — for example, a dinner companion eating with her mouth open.
Both the tics and the irritability dropped dramatically when he cut gluten out of his diet.
Your primary care doctor may dismiss your interest in gluten — after all, it’s clear that “going gluten-free” has become fashionable.
Not everyone who goes gluten-free really needs to.
But you might.
Truly cutting gluten from your diet requires attention — you need to read labels on any packaged food and ask lots of questions in restaurants. Any Chinese restaurant meal with soy sauce contains gluten.
To motivate yourself, do your best to steer completely clear and then, perhaps on the weekend, you might try a portion of a bagel. (Bagels contain more gluten than other flour products). If you experience a clear reaction, it’s time to get checked for celiac and get more advice from a doctor who takes this complaint seriously.