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Is Gluten Really Bad For You?

Dr. Vivek Baliga B. is a consultant physician and cardiologist, and director of Baliga Diagnostics in Bangalore. He is a keen advocate of patient education and loves to blog about all things health related.

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There are so many food trends these days that it is hard to keep track. Everyone is looking for the next best thing to stay healthy. And among the plethora of food trends, fads also emerge.

Just the other day, a patient of mine was asking me about what diet they could follow at home. They were looking to lose weight and begin to lead a healthier lifestyle. They asked me about gluten. They had heard that this was ‘bad for health’ and were not sure whether they should eat foods that contained it.

So, I decided to write something about this, and I hope it will answer any questions you may have about it.

The Gluten Free Trend

Take a walk in your neighbourhood supermarket and you will find there are foods labelled ‘gluten-free’. There are even some restaurants that serve gluten free food these days. This easy availability of foods devoid of gluten is now making people think that gluten is bad for health and that everyone must go ‘gluten-free’. Many feel that by doing so, they will lose weight, boost their immunity, and feel a lot more energetic and healthier.

Fortunately, this is not true.

If you look at the research, going gluten-free has absolutely no health benefit whatsoever, with just a couple of exceptions.

There exists a condition called coeliac disease. This is a bowel condition where eating any foods that contain gluten lead to severe bloating, diarrhoea and abdominal pain. Gluten is a protein that is present in certain foods such as wheat. In coeliac disease, this small amount of protein present in gluten triggers an immune response. This response can damage the inner lining of the small intestine. By doing so, it prevents good nutrients and other elements of food digestion from getting absorbed. These nutrients include calcium, essential fats and many other nutrients needed to keep the bones, heart and brain health.

However, coeliac disease is not the only condition where gluten causes bother. There also exists a condition called ‘gluten sensitivity’ where gluten causes the same symptoms but there is no damage to the intestine.

Foods Containing Gluten

The commonly consumed foods that contain gluten include bread, pasta, pizza, cereals, wheat and even beer. Many other products contain ‘hidden gluten’ such as soya sauce. As you can see, majority of gluten rich foods are wheat based, which are high in fiber. Fiber is needed to keep the bowels healthy and to keep sugar and cholesterol low.

If you decide to follow a gluten-free diet for no reason whatsoever, you place yourself at risk of nutritional deficiencies. This means you will not be giving your body the right balance of nutrients. This inevitably means you will need to take a supplement to provide the nutrients for your body.

Not just that, gluten-free food choices are a lot more expensive than regular ones. Just look for gluten-free biscuits versus regular biscuits in your nearby supermarket. They cost a lot more and do not really provide the health benefits you are looking for.

Some people who have irritable bowel syndrome are sensitive to gluten. Many find that by just getting rid of gluten-rich foods, they can reduce their symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

Getting Tested For Gluten Sensitivity

Your symptoms will usually tell you if you are gluten sensitive or if your body cannot handle gluten. There are nearly 200 symptoms described!

However, if there is a clinical suspicion of coeliac disease, then specific tests need to be done. Remember that coeliac disease is diagnosed through exclusion. This means all other conditions are excluded first before a diagnosis is made. Nowadays, a simple blood test can help make a diagnosis. An endoscopy test may be required to take a biopsy from the bowel. The biopsy shows specific signs that an individual has coeliac disease.

The problem with coeliac disease is that if it is left untreated, it can lead to a type of cancer. Therefore, if there is a suspicion, get yourself tested and see a gastroenterologist. Also remember that that coeliac disease runs in the family, with a 1 in 10 risk of developing the problem.

So Finally, Is Gluten Bad?

The answer is a resounding no. If you have no sensitivity, then gluten is a good thing. This is because the foods that contain gluten are rich in several different nutrients and it is hard to expel them completely from the diet.

Remember, even some of the staple dietary choices needed in treatment of diabetes contain gluten. So, if you have diabetes and wish to follow a gluten-free diet, then you will be left with very few choices and a deficiency of many vitamins.

Instead, opt for a healthy balanced diet that contains a good balance of fats, complex carbohydrates and proteins. Eat a good portion of fresh fruits and vegetables every day. Non-vegetarian food in moderation is fine and will not affect your health. Keep dairy products to a limit. Exercise regularly and do your best to stay fit. Avoid eating food cooked in restaurants and take-aways all the time. All these will help you more than trying to get rid of gluten which is not really causing you any trouble at all!

This article originally appeared in the TeacherTribe Magazine August 2020 edition.


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