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Is a gluten-free diet healthy?

Updated 15 May, 2017

When should you follow a gluten-free diet? Are there circumstances where it might actually be a bad idea? We've looked at the health facts you need to know.

Will a gluten free diet leave you smiling?It’s thought that around 1 per cent of people in the UK suffer from coeliac disease,

This is a chronic health condition that causes their immune system to attack their small intestine whenever gluten enters their digestive system.

For these people, eating a gluten-free diet is a necessary way of life.

However, many more are following a gluten-free diet in the belief that it will improve their health and help them lose weight.

Are they right? Powered by our smart network of UK doctors, we’ve looked at the facts.

What is a gluten-free diet?

Gluten is a protein mainly found in wheat, rye and barley. As such, a gluten-free diet will avoid any food that contains these grains.

This includes some relatively common foods, such as bread and pasta - although of course, there are gluten-free versions of these products available.

Other grains, such as oats, corn, rice, buckwheat and quinoa, can all feature in a gluten-free diet.

Will a gluten-free diet help your digestion?

If you’re a coeliac, yes. If you’re not, there are no guarantees that cutting out gluten will improve your digestion.

It’s possible to have a gluten-sensitive gut and not be coeliac. Some people have what’s known as ‘non-coeliac gluten sensitivity’, which produces similar symptoms but doesn’t actually cause damage to your gut. 

While reducing your gluten intake will help, there could be a number of factors behind your digestive issues and these should be discussed with a doctor.

FODMAPs

One of the other possibilities people should consider is that their problems are caused by a group of foods known as FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols).

Vegetables are just one of many things that fall into the FODMAP food group.These are found in milk, many fruit and veg, artificial sweeteners and, most crucially, wheat.

People with gut issues may find FODMAPs harder to absorb, causing symptoms such as bloating and flatulence.

Wheat contains both gluten and FODMAPs, so a sensitivity to either can cause similar symptoms,

This could mean that people are starting a gluten-free diet based on an incorrect assumption. To make sure you’re doing the right thing, you should speak to a GP before starting any restrictive diet.

Will a gluten-free diet help you lose weight?

Before you head for the gluten-free aisle in the supermarket, have you done your research on what’s in these products?

Commercially produced gluten-free alternatives are often high in fat, sugar and additives. You don’t need to be told that none of these are going to help you lose weight!

In fact, the only weight you stand to lose will come from your wallet, as gluten-free products are normally much more expensive.

Will a gluten-free diet provide the nutrients you need?

As any coeliac person will rightly point out, it’s perfectly possible to get a good nutritional balance without having gluten in your diet.

The risk comes when you proceed without finding alternative sources for the nutrients often found in products that contain gluten and wheat.

What are you missing when you give up wheat?The biggest nutritional gap that needs filling is fibre. Government health guidelines suggest we should aim to get around 30g of fibre per day.

Many of us already get much less than this as it is, so removing bread and other fibre-rich foods from your diet poses a problem.

Luckily, it’s an easy one to solve, as fibre can also be found in wheat-free sources such as beans, pulses, nuts and dried fruit.

Other nutrients found in wheat products include:

Iron Helps the body make red blood cells. It’s also found in green, leafy veg, beans and nuts.
Vitamin B6 Helps the body store energy and form haemoglobin. You can get vitamin B6 from chicken, turkey, fish and nuts.
Copper Helps produce red and white blood cells and is important in the production of haemoglobin. You can find it in nuts and shellfish.
Magnesium Helps your body turn food into energy. You’ll find it in nuts, fish and green, leafy veg.
Zinc Helps process the carbs, fat and protein we eat. You can get zinc from shellfish and dairy products.
Selenium Helps your immune system function properly. It’s found in fish and eggs.
  • Iron - Helps the body make red blood cells. It’s found in green, leafy veg, beans and nuts.
  • Vitamin B6 - Helps the body store energy and form haemoglobin. You can get vitamin B6 from chicken, turkey, fish and nuts.
  • Copper - Helps produce red and white blood cells and is important in the production of haemoglobin. You can find it in nuts and shellfish.
  • Magnesium - Helps your body turn food into energy. You’ll find it in nuts, fish and green, leafy veg.
  • Zinc - Helps process the carbs, fat and protein we eat. You can get zinc from shellfish and dairy products.
  • Selenium - Helps your immune system function properly. It’s found in fish and eggs.

Will a gluten-free diet give you clearer skin?

This is an area that’s still being researched. There are plenty of reported instances where people have credited going gluten-free with improving the symptoms of conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis.

However, there hasn’t yet been a definitive study to put any science behind this claim.

So, what does all this mean?

In short, going gluten-free does not guarantee weight loss, or any improvement in your digestive issues and skin problems. Coeliacs use a gluten-free diet as a protective measure - it doesn't improve their health, it simply stops them from getting ill.

If you’re experiencing health problems, it’s important to speak to a doctor. You might need to cut gluten from your diet, but you'll need a proper diagnosis from a medical professional to confirm this.

If you’re trying to lose weight, a balanced diet and plenty of exercise remains the best strategy.

Self-diagnosing and cutting out entire food groups rarely ends well.

Our doctors are here to discuss any concerns you may have about your diet and find out if it could be the cause of any symptoms you’re experiencing.

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Topics: Diet & Nutrition