- María Teresa Nestares Pleguezuelo
- The Conversation*
You’ve probably heard of the ‘gluten-free diet’ and know someone who follows it.
You have probably wondered what gluten is, why stop eating it and if it would be interesting to follow this diet without knowing very well what it consists of. We will try, briefly, to help you solve these doubts …
To begin we will remember what gluten is. It is a protein fraction of some cereals (wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelled, triticale, kamut …) and, although it does not have great nutritional value, thanks to its technological properties it is used in most processed foods.
It hides where you would never imagine it!
There are people who have a disease related to the consumption of gluten. Some are allergic or sensitive to gluten and others, the majority, are celiac.
Celiac disease is the underlying disease car imaging more frequent among the population (suffers a 1 % of any ethnicity and age). Furthermore, it is multisystémica (not only digestive, as was believed until recently) and has a genetic predisposition.
There are no vaccines, drugs, or cures for this disease, so there is no doubt in the scientific community that people with celiac disease should follow a strict gluten-free diet and for life, without transgressions, since it is the only treatment they have.
The fashion of “gluten free”
However, there is currently an alarming percentage of the population that follows this diet without any justification.
Sometimes it happens simply because there is a family member with this disease and they extend the diet to everyone (for convenience or to avoid contamination).
However, on other occasions it is due to the rise of “gluten free” labeling that began in the United States and has already spread to other countries such as Spain.
This trend began among famous people who promoted “gluten free” as a healthier, hypocaloric option, a solution for various pathologies … All without scientific basis.
This has led the food industry to label food as “gluten-free”, although it has never had it or can never be incorporated into its processing, as is the case with milk or eggs.
It is labeled as an extra that can make it more expensive. It is not clear if it is to make life easier for the group with allergies, intolerances or celiac disease or is it a marketing strategy.
It is clear that the food industry promotes this social phenomenon that has led to the consumption of gluten-free products being much higher than that estimated for diagnosed celiac disease.
Thus, it has reached such an extreme that, currently, the 29% of Americans avoid eating gluten despite the fact that its price is much higher than its gluten equivalents.
The Federation of Celiac Associations of Spain (FACE) calculates the average annual extra cost of gluten-free purchases at € 1,028.22 (US $ 1,200 approx.) Compared to the usual and it is expected that the market will continue to grow.
Is it dangerous to follow a gluten-free diet without being celiac?
Despite the described situation, little is still known about the nutritional value and the real health effects of the gluten-free diet.
According to clinical studies carried out by our research group and other researchers, the gluten-free diet followed by the majority of the celiac and healthy population studied is little varied and unbalanced.
This happens because it involves the elimination of basic products (such as bread, flour and pasta) that are an important source of energy, protein, carbohydrates and some vitamins and minerals. In addition, it has been found to be deficient in fiber, vitamin D, calcium and magnesium.
Likewise, foods with gluten are usually replaced by their gluten-free equivalents, processed foods that, to achieve texture and palatability, are add hydrogenated, trans fats, and high-glycemic simple sugars that promote obesity, insulin resistance and cardiovascular diseases, among others.
As an example, a gluten-free sliced bread has up to 11 grams of fat / 100g, compared to between 3 and 5 grams of fat that can be found in the same bread made with conventional wheat.
We have also verified a more oxidative and pro-inflammatory plasma profile among the population that follows a gluten-free diet. This is associated with low adherence to the Mediterranean diet and high consumption of ultra-processed foods.
It must be made clear that a well-rounded gluten-free diet can be nutritionally balanced. With it, the people who need it do not have problems in the short or long term.
Importance of a conscious diet
In fact, some of the people who eat gluten-free “by choice” report feeling much better.
Why does this happen if gluten is not harmful to non-celiac people? This supposed increase in well-being is probably due to a placebo effect since, with this decision, they now pay more attention to their diet and substitute foods with gluten for healthier ones such as fruits and vegetables.
It should be borne in mind that most of the foods we eat with gluten are quite caloric (pastries, refined flours …) so, if they are replaced by healthier fresh ones, it will be easier for us to feel better and control our weight, regardless of whether they contain gluten or not.
But let’s remember: not because of the gluten itself, but because of a improvement in nutritional quality of the diet.
- Gluten it is not toxic and you can follow a healthy diet by consuming it. There is no scientific evidence to support the consumption of a gluten-free diet as a healthier option among the general population and, of course, ‘gluten-free’ is not equivalent to ‘low calorie’.
- The unjustified exclusion of gluten from the usual diet increases the risk of nutritional imbalance and deficiencies, especially in children, the most susceptible population group.
- In case of suspected intolerance, allergy or sensitivity, it is important to see a specialist doctor for a proper diagnosis.
* This note was published in The Conversation and reproduced hereí under the Creative Commons license. Click here to read the original version.
*María Teresa Nestares Pleguezuelo She is Professor of the Department of Physiology, Coordinator of the Master in Human Nutrition, Director of the Master in Food and Sports for Health, University of University, University of Granada, Spainña.