Gluten: Good or Bad?
We talk to the experts to get the final word on this fad
Almost every café or restaurant you go to these days offers a wide variety of ‘gluten-free’ options on the menu. But what exactly is gluten? And is ridding it from your diet really the best health choice you can make? We caught up with Accredited Practising Dietitian and Allied Health Coach Georgie Britton from Honeysuckle Health to get the final word on this food fad.
What is gluten?
“Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in grains such as barley, wheat (including spelt, durum and atta), rye and oats,” explains Georgie. It acts as a binder, giving food a stretchy quality (think of the way pizza dough stretches, for example).
Gluten is present in a lot of the foods many of us eat on a regular basis, such as flour, bread and baked goods, pasta, cereals and beer. It can also hide away in less-obvious food choices, such as processed and takeaway foods, packaged snacks, seasonings, sauces and stock.
While that might sound like a long list of delicious foods to potentially cut from your diet, don’t fret just yet. For most of us, “avoiding gluten is not necessary” says Georgie.
Is gluten bad for you?
Gluten isn’t inherently bad for us. However, there are people who should avoid eating gluten for health reasons.
“Unfortunately, the fad diet industry has jumped onto the gluten-free bandwagon, with many people avoiding gluten to lose weight with a widespread perception that gluten-free is healthier,” says Georgie. “The opposite could actually be true. Unnecessarily following a gluten-free diet can put the body at risk of nutritional deficiencies, including fibre, iron, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and folate.
“Furthermore, gluten-free product varieties are often more heavily processed with a higher sugar and fat content! Therefore, the label of ‘gluten-free’ does not automatically equate to ‘healthier’ when it comes to food choices.”
However, there are some people who should ditch gluten from their diet.
“Gluten can cause serious side effects in people with coeliac disease – a condition where the immune system attacks the small intestine in response to gluten,” says Georgie.
For people with this autoimmune disease, even small amounts of gluten can damage the lining of the bowel, preventing proper nutrient absorption and causing inflammation throughout the body.
There are some other conditions that may require the reduction of gluten in the diet, adds Georgie, “such as non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and dermatitis herpetiformis; however, most people can eat gluten without any adverse concerns”.
If you suspect you have a sensitivity or intolerance to gluten, see your GP to rule out other possible conditions that may be causing your symptoms.
Related: Gluten-free date & banana bread
What are some gluten alternatives?
Luckily for those who do need to eliminate gluten from their diet, there are plenty of alternatives available. In fact, “one of the only benefits of the popularity of going gluten-free is the increasing availability of product varieties in supermarkets, cafés and restaurants!” says Georgie. “You can keep enjoying your avocado and tomato on toast – just choose a wholegrain gluten-free bread instead.”
According to food labelling laws in Australia, product labels must state that they contain gluten or wheat if either is present; must contain less than 20mg of gluten per 100g of food if they’re claiming to have a low gluten content; and must contain no detectable gluten if they’re claiming to be gluten-free.
Furthermore, adds Georgie, “there are many naturally gluten-free foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, animal protein, eggs, nuts and legumes, dairy, fats and oils, and gluten-free grains (such as rice and corn).”
If you need to be following a gluten-free diet for health reasons, such as coeliac disease, or you suspect you have a sensitivity to gluten, “it is recommended that you enlist the help of an accredited practising dietitian”, Georgie says.
Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.
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Georgie Britton is an accredited practicing dietitian with widespread nutrition knowledge across a range of health settings. She is passionate about supporting people to improve their health and wellbeing by giving them the tools they need to make better food choices. Currently, she works at Honeysuckle Health where her role includes nutritional counselling for people with chronic diseases. Not surprisingly, Georgie loves cooking and sharing home-cooked meals with friends and family. Her favourite dish is a bowl of homemade fettucine with crisp sage and roasted pumpkin from her garden, lots of extra virgin olive oil, and a peppery rocket salad, all served with a glass of red wine and finished with some dark chocolate.