Aussies are a bit paranoid about gluten, according to a national study released last week, which found that as many as 2.6 million adults are cutting gluten out of their diet.
One in three people are avoiding wheat (a main source of gluten) without being told to do so by their doctor, according to the 2011 study by the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council, which surveyed over 1,200 Australians. That means, people are self diagnosing which can lead to problems.
In fact, going gluten free has become trendy.
Penny Dellsperger, technical officer at Coeliac Australia, has noticed a “growing demand” for gluten-free products. She says the growing number of those who choose to go gluten-free are not helping people actually diagnosed with coeliac disease.
Coeliac disease is a serious medical condition affecting about one in 70 Australians, with up to 80 per cent of sufferers possibly not diagnosed, according to Coeliac Australia.
The big question is whether gluten can be bad for you even if you don’t have coeliac disease, as many claim.
Michelle Broom, accredited dietitian and author of the 2011 study, says going gluten free without a medical diagnosis is a worrying social trend.
“There’s a lot of stuff in the media about this. There are a lot of celebrities following these diets, so people make the assumption that if a food is gluten-free it’s healthy, which is really quite dangerous,” she says.
Ms Broom, who also works a program manager at the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council, says self-diagnosis can make a diet unhealthy.
Gluten-free foods often lack fibre, folate, iron, magnesium, iodine and other important nutrients, and can be high in fats and sugar, she says.
“Studies have shown that people who follow a gluten-free diet without the advice of a professional dietitian do find it very difficult to follow a balanced diet and get all the nutrients they need,” Ms Broom says.
Putting yourself on a gluten-free diet will also interfere with the blood test and biopsy needed to diagnose coeliac disease, says Ms Dellsperger.
“You need to keep eating plenty of gluten before you go and see your doctor for the blood test and biopsy.”
Gluten may not be the main culprit at all
Professor Peter Gibson and his team of gastroenterologists at Monash University have conducted some of the world’s first research into gluten sensitivity.
They focussed on those with gut symptoms who get better on a gluten-free diet, but who don’t have coeliac disease.
In 2011, the team conducted a pilot study which gave them “some clue” that non-coeliac gluten intolerance exists.
This encouraged the team to undertake “a much larger, much more difficult” definitive study. This time, the team found no evidence that gluten itself is the cause.
Based on his team’s latest research, there is “very strong” evidence that gluten has been undeservedly copping the blame for symptoms that may actually be the fault of indigestible sugars (known as FODMAPs), Professor Gibson says.
These indigestible sugars almost always co-exist with gluten, which explains why older research has confused the two, and why gluten-free diets often help alleviate symptoms.
“If you go on a diet where you reduce all the FODMAPs… people unequivocally get better,” he says.
“None of us can absorb them properly, and we all produce gas from them, but if you’ve got a sensitive bowel… the FODMAPs will trigger symptoms.”
Gluten isn’t off the hook just yet
Professor Gibson’s team has found a “very tentative” link between gluten and mood in those who have gut symptoms.
In a pilot study, participants fed gluten reported an increase in feelings of depression, while those given a placebo did not.
“This is not the final answer, but … it may be that the gluten in there may be having other effects. We’ve got to do the proper study, which we’re doing now, to really try to find out how real is this suggestion,” Professor Gibson says.
“We’re not trying to bag gluten-free diets and just say they’re a lot of rubbish,” he says. “We know that they improve people. We’re trying to work out how because you don’t want to be on a gluten-free diet if you don’t need to be.”