A couple of scientific studies have come out recently indicating that perhaps following a gluten free diet for general health reasons may not be the way to go. The number of people following a gluten free diet has risen dramatically over the past few years, as a number of popular dietary approaches have recommended cutting down on or even eliminating gluten from the diet, either to lose weight or to simply eat more healthily. Let’s have a look at the role of gluten in diet.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a form of protein that is present in grasses and grains, including a number of staples in the modern human diet such as wheat, barley and rye, and other grains such as spelt. It is also present in oats, although the gluten in oats does not seem to have the same effect on those people who are gluten intolerant. Common staples that are gluten free include rice and millet, potatoes, all types of beans (including lentils and peas) and all other fruit and vegetables. Some more exotic grains like quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat are also gluten free.
It is also very common for food manufacturers to add gluten to prepared food, as gluten adds a ‘chewiness’ to food which can make it taste better. This can make things a little difficult for people who have health problems directly related to gluten – all food ingredients must be checked on the lable for gluten or gluten containing products.
Most people can eat gluten with no ill effects, but for a small group of people eating gluten can cause health issues.
Why is gluten a problem for some people?
Some people are sensitive to gluten, with varying levels of impact. Around 350,000 people in Australia have been diagnosed with the most severe form of gluten sensitivity, called Coeliac’s Disease . People with this condition are susceptible to having the lining of their small intestine damaged by the gluten proteins, which inhibits the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from the intestine into the bloodstream and can cause malnutrition, even where the person is consuming a normal quantity of food.
These people have no choice but to eliminate gluten from their food intake. This normally results in the disappearance of symptoms, which often only reappear when they have ingested gluten without being aware of it.
However the majority of the population are not affected by gluten sensitivity, but nonetheless many people are choosing to go gluten free. Two recent studies have suggested that a gluten free diet may not be the best option for people without gluten sensitivity.
The diabetes study
The first study, conducted at Harvard University, looked at the diet of 200,000 people in the US from questionnaires on food consumtpion completed by the participants over a 30 year period. The researchers found that those participants with a high gluten intake (the top 20%) were 13% less likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes than those with the lowest gluten intake. The researchers suggest that this may be because gluten free substitute foods have lower fibre, whole grain and micronutrient components, all of which are important to a health diet and a healthy gut. So it may not be the gluten itself causing the problem, rather the composition of common substitute foods.
The arsenic/mercury study
Another unrelated scientific study has also indicated that some common gluten staple substitutes may cause other problems. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois has flagged higher than anticipated levels of arsenic and mercury in rice, which is often used as a gluten free substitute in food products such as rice flour. The researchers looked at arsenic and mercury levels in the urine of over 7,000 study participants over a five year period and found those that described themselves as ‘gluten free’ with double the level of arsenic in their urine than those that had gluten in their diets, and mercury levels were roughly 60% higher in the gluten free group.
Elevated levels of arsenic and mercury are associated with higher risks of developing cardiovascular disease, some cancers and neurological conditions.
Although both of these studies are very recent and will need to be confirmed by future research, they are an indication that a decision to go gluten free may not be without consequences, and that a balanced diet containing all the major food groups is an important part of good health. Our recommendation is always to seek medical advice before making any major change to your diet, or if you believe you may have a gluten intolerance or Coeliac Disease.