Gluten-Free Diets Linked To Increased Risk Of Diabetes
These days the bread basket is practically obsolete.
Millions of people around the world are working to avoid gluten – even though only around 1 per cent of the population actually has celiac disease, the main medical reason for adopting the diet.
In 2015, a YouGov poll revealed that 60 per cent of adults have bought a gluten-free product and one household in 10 – 2.7 million – contains someone who believes gluten is bad for them.
And why shouldn’t they? We’re taught by celebrities and fitness advocates that going gluten-free can help us lose weight, boost energy levels and end stomach bloating – it’s the holy grail of healthy eating, or so they say.
Between 2009 and 2014, the proportion of Americans eating gluten-free products despite not having celiac disease more than tripled, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine.
It’s no surprise then that the gluten-free industry is estimated to be worth $4 billion globally (and growing).
But while people with celiac disease and genuine intolerances have to avoid gluten for medical reasons, adopting the diet as a lifestyle choice may be doing more harm than good – researchers from Harvard University have found a link between going gluten-free and type 2 diabetes.
The major study, which observed the gluten intake of 200,000 people over 30 years, found that the 20 per cent of participants who consumed the most gluten had a 13 per cent lower chance of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those who ate the least.
This means that consuming gluten could lower the risk of developing diabetes, lead author Geng Zong from Harvard University’s Department of Nutrition said.
Zong warned against avoiding gluten-free versions of products like bread and pasta: “Gluten-free foods often have less dietary fibre and other micronutrients [such as vitamins and minerals], making them less nutritious and they also tend to cost more.”
And people who deliberately cut gluten from their diets could be unknowingly increasing their risk of diabetes by avoiding it.
While gluten itself – a protein found in wheat, rye and barley – doesn’t offer special nutritional benefits, many whole grains that contain gluten do.
They’re rich in vitamins and minerals, like iron and B vitamins, as well as fibre. And studies – like the one by Harvard University – show that, as part of a healthy diet, may help lower risk of some forms of cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
And including them in our diet is essential.
Cassie Day, a Toronto-based personal trainer and wellness coach, told UNILAD:
We need healthy carbohydrates. Whole grains are health promoting, linked to reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases.
The trendy diet fad right now is to be ‘gluten free’, so the first question I ask my clients is if a doctor has diagnosed a gluten allergy, and 9/10 times they haven’t. They have chosen to remove it from their diet for weight loss reasons or because they were told gluten causes bloating. There are a couple of issues I have with this.
Cassie says if you find you are bloating, it is likely that gluten is not the culprit. Instead, it’s ‘other food choices you are making or stress that cause the inflammation in your body’.
“Just because you remove gluten from the bread, cookies, and pasta, it does not make them ‘healthier’ choices to eat,” she said.
While popular opinion states that removing gluten from a recipe makes the product a healthier choice, Cassie says, in most cases, more sugar is added in replacement of the gluten for taste.
And Jo Traverse, registered dietitian and author of The Low-Fad Diet, agrees.
Speaking to UNILAD, Jo, who does not recommend buying gluten-free products unless medically necessary, said: “It’s important to realise that when you remove the gluten from a product, you need to put in a whole lot of other ingredients to get the flavour and texture like the original product. This doesn’t necessarily make them healthier.”
Instead, it can often do the opposite.
Unfortunately, not all the foods being marketed as ‘gluten-free’ are healthy. Some are high in calories but contain very little nutrition, while others are high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
Instead, Severine Menem, Nutritional Therapist and Health Coach, says avoid reaching for gluten-free products and instead replace them with fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils and pulses.
Speaking with UNILAD, she said:
If you switch gluten-containing products with gluten-free products, then there is absolutely no doubt [that] your health is going to suffer as gluten-free (processed) products are well known for not being as nutritious as the products they’re trying to replace.
If people go on a non-strict gluten-free diet while increasing their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, they are likely to benefit from the switch.
While Severine believes most people would benefit from reducing their consumption of gluten, she says there is no point going gluten free if you don’t have a medical reason to do so.
The bottom line? If you think you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it’s best to see a doctor before giving up whole grains.
And if you’re determined to go gluten-free just because, it’s important to know that it can set you up for some nutritional deficiencies.