Its Saturday morning, post long ride. Ritual coffee stop is in order. Legs shattered, you approach the counter. What to order that will nourish me and refuel my body’, you ponder. Coffee is a given, but what to eat? You eye a bacon, egg and spinach focaccia in the window labelled dairy free, soy free, gluten free’. Perfect! You think as you place your order with content, in belief that your decision will enhance your health. But for what reason do we understand Gluten Free (GF) products to be healthier for us? Do we choose it because we are Coeliac? Because it makes us feel better? Because we are trying to shed some winter kilos? Or because society has told us GF food is good for us and all other healthy people are eating this way? Why has GF eating become such the hype in the last few years and is it really better for us?
What is gluten?
Gluten is made of two proteins, one of which is gliadin. It is gliadin that can cause a reaction in our bodies. It can be found in any product containing wheat, rye or barley and in most cases oats. Gluten is what makes dough sticky like glue allowing it to rise upon heating. When gluten reaches our small intestines and is exposed to immune system cells, in some cases it can be identified as a foreign invader causing the system to mount an attack and consequently damaging the lining of the small intestines through flattening of the villi (small finger like projections found in the small intestine that allow it us to absorb nutrients). This reaction is linked to coeliac disease and in this case is quite crucial that the diagnosed person does not omit any gluten containing foods. However it is estimated that only 1 in 10 of the people who purchase GF foods are diagnosed with coeliac disease, so are there any benefits for people who have no diagnosed condition?
Contemporary research into the effects of gluten in our system has derived a new condition called gluten sensitivity. In this case there is no immune response however gastro-intestinal symptoms like gut irritation that causes inflammation may still occur. Take a moment to think about when you consume something that contains gluten, do you ever get bloated afterwards? Feel fatigued? Get migraines? Stomach pains? Heartburn? Fart? It is likely that you may be gluten sensitive. It is much more common than statistics reveal and you may be another undiscovered part of the team. Have you ever tried eliminating gluten from your diet? In this case eating GF foods could potentially have a significant impact on improved performance due to reduced digestive strain. By reducing your body’s workload from previous energy exerted to try and reduce intestinal inflammation it is likely that you will have more available blood and energy sources to aid in recovery and boost energy levels. Intestinal discomfort, muscle and joint pain are also perceived benefits of eating a GF diet when gluten sensitivity is present.
Gluten & Weight Loss
Have you ever noticed that the GF products in the supermarket isle are strategically placed in the health food isle? A misconception purposely instilled into us by the media is that all foods in this section are good for us. While there may be some great products found in this isle you must be cautious of product marketing. A number of GF foods may still hold the same amount of sugar, carbohydrate and sodium content (in some cases more) than foods containing gluten due to the need to compensate for lack of taste and density. The most rational explanation of our obesity epidemic is the increased consumption of processed foods that are packed with sugar. Remember carbohydrates turn to glucose, a form of sugar when consumed. If you are choosing GF foods simply to try and lose weight remember to consider the carbohydrate and sugar content in these foods. A general rule of thumb is, if it doesn’t fill you up it is likely to be lacking nutrients and very energy dense. I did my own trial at my local supermarket and compared two fruit and nut muesli cereals by the same brand, one GF and the other generic. I did the same with choc chip cookies. By comparing the carbohydrate, sugar and caloric content per 100g I discovered that the caloric content of each food was relative, however the carbohydrate and sugar content in both GF products were greater than the generic brands.
With this in mind by simply substituting generic products for GF products a weight loss change is unlikely to occur. The reason why those who choose to eat GF foods often lose weight is likely due to their limited food choices and subsequently reducing their amount of processed foods and replacing them with real whole/natural products such as fruit and veg, nuts, meats, fish and dairy products. Changing your diet from eating packaged processed foods to consuming foods in their natural state generally results in a decreased caloric intake and an increased nutrient consumption. Any eating plan which decreases caloric intake more than likely will result in weight loss.
So if you have been confused and educated by the media like everybody else on the amazing benefits of GF foods you can now make an informed decision that accommodates for your own individual chemistry. If you feel like you could be sensitive to gluten then try and reduce or eliminate it from your diet. However if gluten does not seem to have any negative effects on your digestive system, ability to recover from sessions or energy levels than there may be no dramatic benefits in eliminating gluten products. A better dietary choice may be to increase the amount of foods you consume that were produced by nature not a factory. Make note that gluten is not nutritionally necessary for our biological function, however is not always destructive either.