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Richard Charlesworth

Biomedical scientist studying gluten & celiac disease

Richard Charlesworth looking at his microscopy slide on computer

Have you noticed that the supermarket aisles have a special gluten-free diet section? Gluten-free diets attract people who need them but also those who don’t. 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.

Richard’s motivation to study the gut 

Richard’s research interest links to his own health. At the age of 15, Richard was diagnosed with celiac disease. So, Richard developed a personal interest to know more about what happens at the cellular level in the body.

As he began his study into the gut, Richard found himself with more questions than answers, so he decided to explore the science more fully through his PhD, looking at inflammatory reactions in celiac disease through analysis. He made a list of molecules and factors which could potentially be used to predict patient severity and prognosis.

“Researching celiac disease has allowed me a greater appreciation of the role my immune system plays in my body and has also allowed me to understand what happens if I am exposed to gluten,” says Richard.

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
Image 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.

Richard Charlesworth’s study and career pathway

Bachelor of Biomedical Science (BBiomedSc) at University of New England

Bachelor of Science with Honours (BSc Hons) at University of New England

PhD in Clinical Immunology at University of New England

Researcher and Academic at University of New England

Lecturer in Biomedical Science at University of New England

Richard is also an avid Science Communicator and has won the FameLab NSW 2018 award for articulating his research about celiac disease in three minutes in a fun way.

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