Should I go gluten free?
Q: There’s a lot of hype about going gluten free. What are the benefits and is it something that everyone would be better off doing? Thanks, Annie. A: Gluten is the name given to a protein in wheat, rye, barley and oats, it’s a composite name representing gliadin in wheat, hordein in barley, secalin in rye and avenin in oats.
There is a genetic typing that has been strongly linked to autoimmune diseases, of which coeliac disease is one. The genotype tends to occur more in people of Irish heritage. Think about this: up until 1845, one of the main sources of starch for Irish people was potatoes.
However, once the potato famine hit, they then started to eat more gluten-containing grains in much greater quantities than ever before, to provide starch for energy for their labour. Coeliac disease has become very common down that Irish line.
Given the combination of gluten consumption in any large quantities being relatively new to their way of eating – 1845 is only about six or seven generations of people ago, and we don’t evolve that quickly – with a gene profile that is common among people of Irish decent, you have a scenario where gluten may not support health; in fact it can be harmful.
Yet there are many people who do not test positive to coeliac disease and have numerous symptoms that resolve through the same dietary changes. My take on this is that the science isn’t finished yet. What if there are 50 more mechanisms through which the human body reacts to gluten, and coeliac disease is only the main one we currently know about?
That said, gluten free is not a way of eating that everyone needs to follow. The best way for us to identify if we have a sensitivity to gluten (aside from coeliac testing which would be advisable in those who have severe or persistent digestive upsets) is to firstly pay attention to how we feel after each meal and secondly omit gluten from our diet for a trial period of time and see how it sits when we reintroduce it.
If you experience reflux or bloating after eating, do you think your body is rejoicing and letting you know it’s thrilled with the choice you just made? No. It is regurgitating what you swallowed so that it doesn’t go any further into your body or create bloating and potentially gas because it doesn’t have the right tools to break down what you’ve consumed.
Yet so often our brain (or taste buds!) kick in and, despite knowing that the food doesn’t agree with us, we cry ‘‘Oh, but I love it!’’, denying that any changes need to be made. By omitting those foods that don’t make us feel so good, we give our body a rest and improve our digestion – and through that all the other aspects of our health.
So if you feel that gluten may be a trigger for your digestive complaints, you may wish to consider a 4-8 week trial of a gluten-free diet, and then see how you feel when you reintroduce it.
If, based on your results, you feel that a gluten free way of eating would be a good choice for you, it’s advisable to speak with a nutrition professional who can guide you through the change and ensure you’re getting the nutrients you would ordinarily get from these food choices elsewhere.
Please note though that to obtain an accurate result from coeliac testing, gluten needs to be in the diet.
Dr Libby is a nutritional biochemist, best-selling author and speaker. The advice contained in this column is not intended to be a substitute for direct, personalised advice from a health professional. See drlibby.com