Truth about gluten-free diet and celiac disease by an expert

Image of gluten: Shutterstock
Image of gluten: Shutterstock

Have you noticed that the supermarket aisles have a special gluten-free diet section? Do you wonder who needs to eat gluten-free food? Does it help in weight loss? 

Dr Richard Charlesworth, a biomedical scientist and lecturer at the University of New England in New South Wales, has been working for a decade to find answers to some of these questions.

According to Celiac Australia, this disease affects on average approximately 1 in 70 Australians. However, around 80% of those remain undiagnosed.

What is gluten?

Image from ASAP Science youtube video on gluten
Credits: ASAP science YouTube video, What the heck is Gluten.

Gluten is a family of proteins found primarily in wheat, barley and rye grains. Within these grains, gluten forms a stretchy sheet that has a sticky, gluey consistency. This makes the wheat-based dough so elastic and gives it the ability to rise when it is baked. After ingesting, it is broken down by enzymes in our digestive system into gliadin and glutenin.

Why do some people need a gluten-free diet?

Gluten can cause sensitivities and autoimmune disorders in some people. So, for people with these sensitivities, or an autoimmune disorder like celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is the main treatment. In patients without celiac disease or a sensitivity to gluten, these proteins are harmless. They are broken down further to be used in the body to build its own proteins.

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Understanding your gut

“Your gut is the second-largest external surface to your body, second to the skin,” says Richard.

“How can it be an external surface when it is inside your body you ask? It’s because your gut is a hollow tube that goes all the way with no way for anything to enter the body. Your immune system is quite active in the wall of the gut and is constantly guarding for any dangerous foreign molecules which may cause harm to the body.”

In the market for a gluten-free diet?

Along with supermarkets, other outlets have also started the ‘gluten-free inclusion’ movement.

“Increasingly, restaurants and food manufacturers have started to provide more gluten-free options. This is both a good thing and a bad thing,” he says.

“Although a vast majority of this food is 100% gluten-free, a lack of understanding in even the most well-meaning establishment can lead to gluten-contamination.”

Need a gluten-free diet to be healthy? Or lose weight?

In general, gluten-free food does not help in staying healthy or weight loss.

“If you do not have diagnosed celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, you don’t need to follow a gluten-free diet,” says Richard.

Gluten-free processed foods are made palatable by adding sugar and can increase calorie intake.

“This frequently leads to weight gain for people who try this diet.”

Plus, “Although, this has improved in recent years, the gluten-free diet itself can be quite restrictive and unless you are eating a wide variety of gluten-free substitutes, you will miss out on key nutrients and fibre,” says Richard.

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General recommendations about celiac disease and gluten consumption

As there are several conditions that can produce symptoms like celiac disease, testing becomes important. If you have ongoing gut issues and symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea and cramping, you should go and see your doctor.

“The gluten-free diet is a fascinating thing. What is primarily an elimination diet for those with celiac disease has become somewhat of a social phenomenon, with seemingly everyone trying to exorcise gluten from their lives,” says Richard.

So, before you pick up a gluten-free food packet from the super-market or believe that it will help in weight-loss, do think about the science behind it.

Astha Singh

Author: Dr Astha Singh

Astha is the Managing Editor at Refraction Media. She is a STEM Marketer and holds a Honors, Masters & PhD degree in Science. She has been producing STEM marketing content for over 10 years and is an avid advocate of Diversity in the STEM industry.

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