The gluten free trend has taken over the world in the last few years, inspiring a wave of people to alter their diet based on the promise of being healthier and in some cases, losing weight. But are these claims true? Is there really any health benefit to going gluten free?
To cover the basics, gluten is a family of proteins found in grains, including wheat, rye and barley – making it very common in diets that comprise of a lot of bread, pasta, etc. While most people can eat gluten without any issue, the origins of the gluten free trend are very medically valid, and rather grim.
For hundreds of years, doctors and physicians had recognised and written about a disease that didn’t allow people to digest food, leading to severe diarrhoea, weight loss, malnutrition, and ultimately death. Those with this mysterious disease were literally starving to death in the presence of food.
Later, this illness was found to be an autoimmune condition that affected digestion, and was named celiac disease. This condition made the patient’s bowels highly irritable, and they became easily inflamed, leading to indigestion and diarrhoea. When the intestines were in this condition, even essential nutrients were purged from the body, and this is why those afflicted with the illness could not maintain a healthy weight. Since the causative agent for this illness was yet undiscovered, having celiac disease before the 20th century was practically a death sentence.
It was only towards the end of World War II that wheat was found to be a key trigger for this disease. During an extremely severe famine branded ‘the hunger winter’ in the Netherlands in 1944, Dutch paediatrician Dr. Willem Karel Dicke noticed a change in children with celiac disease. During the famine, bread was almost non-existent. People had to survive on a very thin soup, and many thousands died. However, Dicke stumbled onto a rather startling discovery – his patients with celiac disease actually seemed to be gaining weight.
This led to extensive research, which then revealed wheat to be a key trigger for this illness. Patients who removed wheat from their diets experienced rapid improvement. Today, the key trigger for celiac disease has been narrowed down to gluten. Those with the disease have no choice but to adopt gluten free diets, since they are physically incapable of digesting and tolerating gluten.
But what about the rest of us? Would going gluten free improve our overall health as well?
The truth is that there is no conclusive evidence that a gluten free diet is any better than one with gluten – in fact, in removing gluten from your diet you could be depriving yourself of essential nutrients like iron, zinc and potassium. Current research on the benefits of a gluten free diet are vague at best, and the common consensus among experts remains that if you do not have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, gluten is generally beneficial for your health.
Adler, Douglas G. “The Grim Origins of 'Gluten-Free'” Discover. April 22nd, 2019. Web. <https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/the-grim-origins-of-gluten-free > as seen on August 5th, 2020.
Bjarnadottir, Adda. “What is gluten, and why is it bad for some people?” Medical News Today. May 14th, 2020. Web. < https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318606 > s seen on August 5th, 2020.
Jones, Amy L. “The Gluten-Free Diet: Fad or Necessity?.” Diabetes spectrum : a publication of the American Diabetes Association vol. 30,2 (2017): 118-123. doi:10.2337/ds16-0022 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5439366/ > as seen on August 5th, 2020.