Is gluten bad for you? A gut health specialist on when to cut it out

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  • A qualified expert shares their take.

    If you’re Googling, “is gluten bad for you?”, chances are, you’ve read somewhere online that it’s not the best for your gut lining, skin, digestion or so on. Gluten free foods are everywhere nowadays – it’s as easy to buy bog-standard pasta in your local supermarket as it is a (normally more expensive) gluten free alternative.

    But, question: are any of these claims substantiated and rooted in science, and is the GF aisle the place to be, or are they actually best left to those with a diagnosed intolerance or disease like coeliac (where your body cannot process gluten?)

    First things first – a little definition for you. Gluten is a protein found in wheat (durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, einkorn), rye, barley and triticale. In essence, the protein helps foods to maintain their shape, acting as a glue that holds food together.

    “Only a handful of foods have gotten such bad press as much as gluten,” shares Marilla Chamon, nutritionist, gut health specialist, and founder of Gutfulness Nutrition. “But what is the reason behind it? Is it really that bad for you and should you be avoiding it?”

    She answers all this and more in the article below. Keep scrolling for her expert take, and don’t miss our round up of what to eat after a workout, vegan protein sources, the best protein powders for women, while you’re here.

    Is gluten bad for you?

    Short answer: no food is “bad”, but you may not be able to process gluten personally. In that instance – aka coeliac or intolerance, both of which you should visit a professional to establish -it’s best avoided.

    One of the reasons gluten has made headlines as “bad” in recent years, according to the Chamon, is because studies found that gluten triggers the release of a protein called zonulin. “This is responsible for regulating the tight junctions in the gut, which in turn control what passes through the gut wall – in other words, how ‘leaky’ your gut is,” she shares.

    “Leaky guts are problematic as your gut is an essential defence mechanism to keep us safe from harmful bacteria and toxins,” she continues.

    In general, gluten has often been swerved in the past as it has the potential to cause inflammation. “Further studies have looked at a connection between leaky gut and chronic health conditions, in particular autoimmune diseases,” shares Chamon. Research found that having a leaky gut can contribute from everything to over-activation of the immune system to chronic inflammation.

    “From this moment, gluten free diets made the headlines and became the go-to diet for those looking to dial down their inflammatory response,” she explains.

    It is important to note here that, that being said, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to nutrition and, indeed, gluten. There is nothing inherently wrong with gluten and the majority of the population eat it day-to-day without suffering from ill side effects. It’s in a lot of the foods we eat – bread, pasta, cereals and more.

    That being said, going gluten free is an absolute must for those with coeliac disease, shares Chamon. “Contrary to popular belief, going gluten free is not a food allergy or intolerance, but a serious autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues when gluten is ingested,” she shares. “This consequently causes damage to the lining of the small intestine where nutrients are absorbed.”

    You should also consider going gluten free if you have a wheat allergy or gluten intolerance.

    Symptoms of sensitivity include:

    If you are experiencing any of the above, do see a doctor or qualified professional.

    Pros of eating gluten-free

    1. Grains are heavily processed

    Did you know? Grains such as wheat are unfortunately some of the crops that are most heavily affected by the use of pesticides such as glyphosate, shares the expert. “A recent paper argued that glyphosate may be a key contributor to several diseases and conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, infertility, depression, and cancer,” she explains.

    2. Gluten may trigger digestive symptoms

    As above, it may be a trigger for digestive symptoms such as bloating and diarrhoea. “This occurs even in individuals that do not have a diagnosis of coeliac disease,” the expert shares. “Eating a gluten free diet became popular especially among individuals that suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), as their symptoms seem to improve on a gluten free diet.”

    Do note, though: this is completely unique to each individual.

    Is gluten bad for you?

    Cons of eating gluten-free

    1. You may be blaming the wrong culprit

    “Despite often being blamed for causing digestive symptoms, a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of individuals with self-reported Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity found that fructans – a type of fermentable carbohydrate found in wheat – were to blame for gastrointestinal symptoms in individuals with IBS, not gluten,” explains the nutritionist.

    2. You may miss out on fibre 

    Fun fact: wheat is a source of prebiotic fibre, which is the main source of food for our beneficial gut bacteria.

    “A gluten free diet may negatively impact the composition of our gut microbiota as it lacks prebiotic fibre compared to a diet where wheat is present,” the pro shares. “A recent study demonstrated that eating a gluten free diet decreases the number of beneficial gut bacteria such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus.”

    Bottom line?

    It’s completely up to you and your body type, but there is nothing innately “bad” with gluten and you certainly shouldn’t ever avoid food groups for the sake of it. “At present, we are far from knowing the true role of gluten in chronic health conditions, but most likely it is not the consumption of gluten alone that will lead to the development of them,” explains Chamon.

    For those without a diagnosis of Coeliac Disease or wheat allergy it may be worth consulting with a qualified nutritionist before jumping into a gluten free diet.

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