Should you avoid gluten? Going gluten free has become popular in recent years, with more people than ever avoiding gluten containing products.
Go into a supermarket nowadays and you can often find whole aisles dedicated to ‘free from’ products. Removing gluten is touted as a great way to improve your body composition. But what is gluten and will avoiding it really help you get lean?
What is gluten?
Gluten is a form of protein that is found in grains. There are many different types of these proteins which are all collectively termed, gluten. Gluten can be found, to greater or lesser extents, primarily in the following grains:
Wheat has the greatest amount of gluten in it, with the other grains further down the list having lesser amounts. Gluten is prized for its ‘glue’ like properties; glutinum being Latin for glue. It’s what gives bread its doughy quality and helps other products made with gluten bind together.
Gluten is a non-essential nutrient. In this article, we’re going to look at the potential positives of removing gluten, from a health and body composition perspective. There are no negatives to removing gluten from a nutrition perspective, since it is not required by the body. However, going gluten free will limit your food options, since so many products contain gluten, which can be hard.
Wheat and gluten can be found in any products containing flour made from the above grains, such as:
However, you will also find wheat and gluten added to many processed foods, again for its glue like properties. It could be in anything from ready meals to table sauces.
What is wrong with gluten?
Gluten is only a problem if the person consuming it has either coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease. The body has an abnormal immune response to gluten which can cause many painful symptoms. These can include:
- Stomach pain
- Nutrient deficiencies
These gastrointestinal symptoms are likely to be rapid in response to eating gluten.
The body’s immune system responds incorrectly when gluten is consumed and attacks itself. It is diagnosed with an intestinal biopsy or blood testing for elevated antibodies.
This abnormal immune reaction to gluten can cause hosts of issues, other than the obvious pain and discomfort. Damage may be caused to the digestive system, resulting in lack of absorption of essential nutrients and associated long term issues. It can also cause damage to other organs in the body as well such as the liver and the brain. Coeliac disease affects around one percent of the population making it rare, but not that rare.
Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) is different. Coeliac disease is not a sensitivity to gluten, it is an abnormal immune response. Gluten sensitivity, on the other hand, is defined by the Coeliac Society as: ‘the occurrence of similar symptoms as coeliac disease without the associated elevated antibodies or excess damage to the gut lining – symptoms are more likely to be delayed rather than immediate.’
The definition is still a bit unclear and further research needs to be done, but it is safe to say that NCGS is characterised by negative symptoms improving when gluten is removed.
Gluten sensitivity could (stress the ‘could’) cause weight gain (but not fat gain. some people will misread this and assume weight = fat) due to inflammation in the intestines, lack of nutrient absorption as well as potentially impacting other hormones such as cortisol. This could cause fluctuations in blood sugar as well as a host of other issues which may cause weight gain.
The Sliding Scale
Though coeliac disease is diagnosed in a black and white kind of way, it’s severity is on a sliding scale. Some people will not be classed as coeliac, though they may have been close when tested for anti-bodies. Equally, you could have coeliac disease and had strong negative test results, manifesting in extremely severe symptoms when consuming gluten.
The same can be true of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. Some people may get one or two mild symptoms while others may have a host of very severe reactions. Because the reaction to gluten is slower in NCGS it can be difficult to identify. The Coeliac Society suggest that the best way to identify or define NCGS would be improvement of symptoms when gluten is removed or worsening of symptoms when gluten is re-introduced.
Could it be something else?
There are many other chronic issues that could represent with similar symptoms as gluten sensitivity. For example, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome and even chronic stress can cause many of the symptoms associated with gluten sensitivity.
Because symptoms are often delayed by hours or days after ingestion of a food sensitivity, pinning down the specific food can be problematic. Additionally, research suggests that many people may be sensitive to foods containing FODMAPs (short for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols). These molecules can be poorly absorbed by some people which can cause many of the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and NCGS.
For many people removing gluten can help symptoms improve, leading to the conclusion that they must have a sensitivity to gluten. However, the sugars in junk food can also cause gastrointestinal stress such as bloating, gas, constipation and diarrhoea. Since gluten is in flour which can be found in cakes, biscuits and other sugary baked items as well as a lot of processed foods, removing gluten often results in removing a lot of these sugary junk foods. Since these foods can also cause gas, bloating and other digestive issues, gluten may be getting the blame when really it was just junk food.
Additionally, with bulky wheat based products removed such as pasta and breads, the diet may then feature more vegetables and protein instead, which are obviously a great asset to having better digestion, health and energy. The miracle might not have been removing gluten, but just improving the diet generally.
Do I have gluten sensitivity?
If you’re getting any of the symptoms associated with coeliac disease or NCGS when you should go and see your GP in the first instance to be tested for coeliac disease. The tests cannot be performed if gluten is not currently present in the diet so the Coeliac Society recommend testing before removing gluten from your diet.
With coeliac disease ruled out, but symptoms continuing, there are currently no official medical tests for non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. There are many food sensitivity tests out there, offered by different private labs, though the research into NCGS and its testing is still limited. The most accessible approach for most people will be using an elimination diet.
Here we could include a print out/infographic of how to perform an elimination diet?
An elimination diet is the general term used to refer to a diet that removes a specific food to gauge improvement in symptoms.
To test a gluten intolerance with an elimination diet you would remove all forms of gluten for a period. In the case of gluten, removing it for six weeks works well. Before doing so, keep a diary for a week noting all negative symptoms. Everything from obvious digestive issues to brain fog to joint pain – just anything that doesn’t seem right to you.
You will continue to keep this diary for the duration of the elimination diet. Record if the symptoms improved? Which ones? By how much? Keep the diary for the full six weeks as the effects of gluten, if you have a sensitivity, may remain for a while after you’ve removed it. Symptoms may require a couple of weeks to begin improving before you notice.
Remember, gluten can be found in many innocuous products such as sauces and processed meals. Just removing wheat based products won’t do the job – it’s going to require a lot of reading of ingredient lists!
After your six-week gluten elimination diet is up, then comes the challenge phase. You’ll reintroduce gluten to your diet. Again, keep a diary and track how you feel when doing this. Don’t eat the entire bakery section in one sitting – anyone is going to feel bad after that. Perhaps start off with adding products that have a small amount of gluten in, such as table sauces that contain it, for a week. Then try a small amount of bread or pasta during the next week.
With each food reintroduction, track how you feel in the hour or two after you’ve eaten it. You should also but also pay attention to how you feel generally. Remember, symptoms of a food sensitivity can take longer to manifest.
At this point, you should have a better sense of how your body feels with and without gluten. If symptoms continued during the elimination diet then perhaps gluten isn’t the cause. It could be another sensitivity, so perhaps try a lactose or FODMAPs elimination diet. It could be irritable bowel syndrome, stress or other issues so it’s probably time to revisit your GP.
If symptoms improved dramatically during the elimination, and then returned with a vengeance during the challenge phase, perhaps gluten is a sensitivity for you. Removing or reducing gluten, only after testing in this way, may be of benefit to you. The negative symptoms you were experiencing are improved by its removal so that’s obviously going to improve your quality of life. Better digestion, more motivation, a clearer head and feeling much less run down, will all contribute to better health, happiness and body composition.
We recommend undertaking any elimination diet under the supervision of a qualified nutrition professional. They’ll provide logistical support as well as being able to make informed decisions based on changes in symptoms. They will also ensure that removing the foods you have is safe for you and doesn’t result in any dangerous nutritional deficiencies.
I don’t eat gluten – I’m healthy (the halo effect)
The primary issue with the current trend of gluten free eating is the halo effect. People believe that because they are eating gluten free, they must therefore be eating healthily. Honestly, you can still eat extremely poorly while eating gluten free.
Gluten free is only positive for your health and body composition if you have a sensitivity to gluten. If the body has no issues processing gluten, being gluten free won’t magically burn body fat just because you’ve removed gluten.
You can still eat junk and be eating gluten free. Just because a product is ‘gluten free’ doesn’t make it not junk food. You can still get sugar filled snack bars and confectionary that don’t contain gluten. This is known as the ‘halo effect’. The halo effect is when the impression of something influences your perception of it. In this case – the product is gluten free so people’s impressions are that it must be healthy. That just isn’t true. Gluten free does not automatically mean a food is healthy or good for fat loss.
The gluten-free guide
If you’ve been diagnosed with coeliac disease, or have undertaken a thorough elimination diet and believe you have a non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, what next? What does a diet without gluten look like?
Your diet is going to look a bit different to how it used to since gluten is in a lot of different foods, though there are now gluten free options for many dietary staples.
When going gluten free, and indeed for any healthy balanced diet, the bulk of your diet should be made up of proteins, fruits, veggies and good fats. Check out the list below for some ideas about different foods to include:
You could also bulk out these primary foods with small servings of:
And very occasionally include:
- Gluten-free products such as bread, pasta, baked goods and confectionary.
Having weighted your diet towards the first two lists of high nutrient density foods, you might some of the gluten free alternative to your usual staples such as bread. The most nutritious healthy foods should always make up the bulk of your diet, regardless of gluten. Living gluten free on gluten free pizza will do nothing for your health or body composition.
Yes or No?
Ultimately, going gluten free should be an informed decision based on feeling better without gluten in your diet. Removing gluten when you do not have a sensitivity to gluten is unlikely to be the fat burning miracle that many expect it to be. That said, if you do have NCGS, then removing gluten could help you feel better. Importantly, blaming gluten for every digestive problem could ultimately be blinding you to investigating other potential causes of discomfort.
If going gluten free makes you consume vegetables, fruit and protein in higher quantities, then that can only be a good thing. But don’t fall for the halo effect. You can be gluten free and still eat junk. Equally, many people can still eat a healthy diet while eating gluten.
Is gluten an essential nutrient? No. Does it add anything of nutritional value to the diet? No. Would avoiding many of the foods that contains gluten help you reduce the amount of junk food you eat, leading to better health, fat loss and energy? Yes. If you don’t have coeliac disease or a proven gluten sensitivity, will eating gluten make you fat and unhealthy? Current research suggests, no.