Are There Health Benefits to Going Gluten-Free?

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The last reported number of Australians choosing a gluten-free diet was 18%, and that was in 2013 – imagine how many more people have chosen to remove gluten from their diet today!

There is a growing belief that gluten can be unhealthy, and may lead to digestion and weight problems. There are definitely people who can have adverse reactions to gluten, but is it really that bad for the rest of us? What are the benefits, if any, of going gluten-free?

What is gluten?

Gluten is a combination of proteins, and is a common ingredient in many foods that we eat. It’s most often found in wheat and other grains, and is used to give dough its elasticity as well as allow it to rise and keep its shape.

While it is packed with protein, it has very little nutritional value. But does that mean it’s bad for you? The answer is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no.

How does it cause problems?

There a number of people who have a condition known as celiac disease, and those who suffer from it have a total intolerance to gluten. Celiacs experience some nasty side-effects when they consume gluten, such as stomach pain, bloating, nausea, and vomiting in the short-term. In the long term, sufferers can end up with small intestine problems, infertility, osteoporosis, nerve damage, and seizures.

There are also those who may be ‘sensitive’ to gluten, meaning they can get similar short term symptoms as celiac sufferers, just without the long-term issues.

What is gluten-free?

Going gluten-free means cutting out all foods that contain gluten, which is not as simple as simply cutting out bread. Pasta and baking are also out too, as are many products that have “hidden” gluten that aren’t as obvious, such as beer and imitation meat.

So it must be bad for you, right?

Many people claim that after going on a gluten-free diet they’ve found that they have better digestion, more energy, and have lost weight. But this does not necessarily mean that it’s bad for you. If people do feel all those great things after giving up gluten, it might not actually be because of that. Going gluten-free cuts out a lot of things from your diet that at best are nutritionally empty, and at worst are bad for you. Cakes, pies, many candies, white bread, and beer are all things that are detrimental to your health and contain gluten. Your body will need to fill the void left by not eating those bad things and replace them with good things. This means that giving up gluten also means eating more veggies, fruits, and lean meats, while also drinking more water.

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There’s a chance that the good changes you feel are a result of improving your diet in general, as opposed to the gluten that is no longer being ingested. Even if someone isn’t substituting better foods, the changes may also be due to the placebo effect. This means that if someone believes that a certain behaviour is making them feel better, then they’ll eventually start to actually feel better, whether or not that behaviour is the true cause.

So what’s the problem?

If it’s not medically necessary, such as having celiac disease, going gluten-free doesn’t cause any health risks as long as it’s done properly. Many breads and cereals are a great source of vitamin B, so make sure you’re getting enough from another source. The gluten-free equivalents to these products do not contain it, so it’s a good idea to take a supplement, especially if you’re pregnant. Vitamin B, also known as folic acid, is vital for preventing birth defects.

There are many foods out there that contain gluten, so following a strict diet can be very difficult. Make sure that this diet isn’t causing problems for you in other parts of your life, including causing increased stress and anxiety. For example, if you’re not able to eat at a restaurant because of the lack of choices or hang out with friends because of the temptation of beer, then it might be that a strict gluten-free diet isn’t for you. Gluten-free products can also be quite expensive, so expect to see a rise in your grocery budget as well.

If a gluten-free diet isn’t medically necessary, just make sure that it fits your lifestyle. Otherwise, you’ll be setting yourself up for frustration and failure in your weight-loss or health goals.

There is also growing concern amongst celiac sufferers that they won’t be taken as seriously when out in public, such as at restaurants, when they order off the gluten-free menu or ask for substitutions. Servers and cooks know that many people are gluten-free by choice, and may cut corners or offer inadequate substitutions on certain dishes. Improperly preparing a gluten-free meal can cause a celiac sufferer great discomfort and pain.
So if you are having friends over for dinner and someone mentions that they are gluten-free, it’s important that you take it seriously regardless of whether they have announced if they are celiac or not. Prepare dishes free from gluten by using gluten-free substitutes, such as gluten-free bread or Slendier pasta, and you’ll ensure that all of your guests have a great time, eat delicious food, and go home feeling happy and healthy.

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Sources:

http://www.jamieoliver.com/news-and-features/features/voluntarily-going-gluten-free/#15UpeibbRXgXvX4W.97
http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/going-gluten-free-just-because-heres-what-you-need-to-know-201302205916
http://www.onegreenplanet.org/natural-health/5-awesome-benefits-of-going-gluten-free/
http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/recipes/healthy-eating/nutrition/gluten-free/gluten-free-diet-benefits/

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