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Should you give up gluten?

It’s become fashionable to go gluten-free for better health. But is it necessary? Or wise? We find out.

One small thing:If you’re on a gluten-free diet, we have good news: we have a range of Free From Gluten breads, rolls, wraps, flours, cereals, baking mixes and pastas that will make your life easier.

Gluten seems to have become something of a health villain in recent years. But according to research in respected publications, including the American Journal of Gastroenterology (AJG), ditching gluten for no particular reason will do you no good – it may even set you up for harm.

What exactly is gluten?

Gluten is a sticky composite of several proteins found mainly in wheat, but it’s also present in rye and barley, and to a degree in wholegrain products related to wheat, such as bulgur, spelt and farro. While gluten itself is not nutritionally significant, many grains containing it are.

Coeliac disease

This genetic disorder can have potentially life-threatening complications. After eating gluten, the body’s defence system attacks normal tissue, producing inflammation of the intestinal walls, which prevents absorption of vital vitamins, minerals and calories. Symptoms range from weakness and unexplained weight loss to infertility and some cancers.

“The gluten-free diet is a diet for life [if you have coeliac disease], so it’s essential that proper tests are carried out before you start eliminating foods,” says Durban-based nutrition counsellor Lucille Cholerton, a specialist in gluten sensitivity and coeliac disease.

Are you allergic to gluten – or merely intolerant?

Coeliac disease is on the extreme end of the spectrum, but there are two other conditions that are recognised as legitimate: gluten intolerance and gluten allergy. If you have a gluten allergy, you’ll know all about it, because within minutes of ingesting even a minute amount, you’re likely to develop a rash, swollen lips, abdominal pain, cramps, nausea, headache or diarrhoea, or begin itching, wheezing and sneezing. This is activated by a different branch of the immune system to that responsible for coeliac disease and is quite rare.

Symptoms of gluten intolerance (also called gluten sensitivity), which is not life-threatening but quite uncomfortable, can include bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhoea. It’s more common than coeliac disease and gluten allergy, but it isn’t immune-related. Little is understood about what causes it.

So, should you give up gluten?

Unless you have a genuine condition, such as a gluten allergy or intolerance, or coeliac disease, going gluten-free could do more harm than good to your health – it may even be dangerous. This according to the AJG, dietitians and specialist physicians, such as Mossel Bay-based gastroenterologist Dr Francois Retief, who says, “Diets low in carbohydrates and high in fat and protein encourage the proliferation of a type of microbe (bacteroidetes), which is not beneficial.”

When people eliminate gluten from their diets without professional advice, they tend to give up cereals and grains altogether. Eliminating grains from your diet can leave you deficient in vitamins, minerals and fibre, cautions Leanne Kiezer, a registered dietitian.

“It could be argued that your daily fibre requirements can be made up through vegetables and fruit. However, research is beginning to indicate that cereal fibre may be more protective against certain illnesses. Studies have shown wholegrains may help lower the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers.”

If you suspect you have coeliac disease, gluten intolerance or an allergy, don’t self-diagnose, get tested. If you are diagnosed with a gluten-related condition, find a registered dietitian adsa.org.za who can help you draw up an eating plan. There are plenty of healthy, delicious foods that are naturally gluten-free, such as beans, seeds and nuts.

But do bear in mind that when gluten is removed from recipes, texture and palatability may be affected, which can result in fats and sugars being added. Another good reason to always check food labels.

Sneaky sources of gluten

Gluten can often hide in unexpected places, from anti-caking agents to thickeners, so check the list of ingredients, especially on the following products:

  • Salad dressings
  • Soups and sauces
  • Sweets
  • Condiments and seasonings
  • Processed meats
  • Sausages
  • Soya meat replacements
  • Alcoholic drinks (beer, vodka, whisky and others)
  • Coffee substitutes
  • No-fat dairy products
  • Medications (ask your pharmacist)

And don’t forget to look out for our Free From Gluten range in-store .

If you have a question for our dietitians, click here, or to find a dietitian in your area, visit adsa.org.za. To get in touch with us, email healthhotline@pnp.co.za.