Going Gluten-Free? Here are the Benefits and Risks

A gluten-free diet is essential for some people. It has gained popularity recently due to certain medical needs, including wheat allergy and celiac disease. Learn how to balance going against the grains.

Top view of gluten-free food, including pasta, bread, snacks, and flour on wooden background

Gluten is present in all-natural wheat, rye, or barley-based products and is ubiquitous in our everyday diet. However, there has been a lot of buzz in the last decade about the benefits of a gluten-free diet

“Gluten is a family of proteins found in grains, including wheat, rye, spelt, and barley. The two main proteins in it are glutenin and gliadin. Gliadin is responsible for most of the adverse health effects of gluten. When flour mixes with water, glutenin forms a sticky network that has a glue-like consistency. This property makes the dough elastic, whereas gliadin gives bread the ability to rise during baking. It also provides a chewy, satisfying texture,” says Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Physician Chu I Ta at Real Health Medical. 

“Over the years, the food industry has used gluten to improve texture and flavouring to satisfy cravings. This change in diet and eating habits may slowly affect our spleen and digestion, leading to many newly discovered allergy issues today,” adds Physician Chu. 

Many believe that getting rid of gluten will result in weight loss. While there is no evidence for this, many in the food business are producing gluten-free variants of everyday food products, from cakes to pasta to soy sauce. However, medical experts are still on the fence about whether the associated benefits apply to healthy individuals. 

Let us take you through the arguments supported by facts on both sides. 

Yes to Gluten: Why You Should Switch to a Gluten-Free Diet

A girl putting out her hand in front of slices of white bread
People who have celiac disease should avoid food that contains gluten in their diet.

People who have celiac disease should avoid food that contains gluten in their diet. Celiac disease is a genetic disorder. This means symptoms would have shown up early for these individuals, leading them to switch their diets to gluten-free.

However, reports show that 0.5% to 13% of the general population suffers from non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Apart from wheat, barley, and rye-based ingredients, they must also scan food labels for ingredients that may contain gluten. 

Diagnosis of NCGS is complicated and has many limitations. If you have IBS, abdominal discomfort, or a “foggy mind” that cannot be traced back to specific foods in your diet, it may be worthwhile to give a gluten-free diet a shot to see if you belong to the group of individuals with NCGS. 

Additionally, “leaky gut syndrome” is a relatively new area of research after scientists discovered that specific gluten molecules are capable of “leaking” into our bloodstreams from the intestine. These molecules could be why individuals with celiac disease, NCGS, and gluten allergy experience a myriad of symptoms when they consume gluten. Even for healthy individuals, proteins can “leak” into the bloodstream and cause low-level but chronic inflammation. 

TCM believes our Kidney jing and the spleen system contribute to weakness or immunity disorders, causing allergies. “While Kidney Jing is a congenital essence that comes from our parents which we cannot alter, we can adopt positive lifestyle habits to help strengthen our Spleen qi,” says Physician Chu.

“By having a moderate amount of any food ingredients, regular exercise, and adequate sleep, we can control allergy attacks like gluten intolerance better.” 

No Gluten Please: Why You Shouldn’t Switch to a Gluten-Free Diet

Colourful illustration of essential vitamins and minerals
Gluten-free diets may not provide sufficient micronutrients.

Some researchers argue that switching to a gluten-free diet isn’t for everyone. It can potentially do more harm than good. 

One reason for not starting on a gluten-free diet is the risk of missing out on many essential micronutrients. Gluten-free food alternatives generally contain less fibre, vitamins, and minerals. This is because the process of eliminating gluten may remove these nutritional components as well. However, you can get nutrients from other sources of food or beverage. One of them is Salus floradix iron, a botanical beverage mix high in iron, vitamins B1, B2, B6, B12, and vitamin C.

More importantly, a gluten-free diet doesn’t help you to lose weight. Many gluten-free variants of baked foods like muffins and cakes contain more calories and sugar than non-gluten-free ones. Manufacturers usually add more salt, fat, starch, and sugar to gluten-free baked goods to compensate for the lack of taste, consistency, and texture. From this point of view, going gluten-free may result in weight gain. 

So, How Should I Decide for Myself? 

A gluten-free diet is beneficial to those who have celiac disease. Those who suffer from IBS, abdominal discomfort, and have difficulty focusing should rule out intolerance to certain carbohydrates before considering a gluten-free diet. 

According to Physician Chu, TCM remedies can complement a gluten-free diet. Herbs can boost immunity and reduce the risk of allergy. Those that are good to strengthen the lungs are ginseng (人参, ren shen) and cordyceps (冬虫夏草, dong chong xia cao). Meanwhile, poria (茯苓, fu ling), while euryale seed (芡实, qian shi) and goji berry (枸杞子, gou qi zi) help to improve the kidneys can help tonify the spleen.

However, if you have a gluten intolerance or allergy, you should avoid certain herbs. These include unripened wheat grain (浮小麦, fu xiao mai), medicated leaven (神曲,shen qu), and barley sprout (麦芽,mai ya) as they contain a certain level of gluten in them. Patients who have or suspect they have a gluten allergy may need to consult a TCM physician before consuming long-term Chinese herbs. 

In the end, the decision to cut or limit gluten intake is entirely up to you. Simply put, whichever diet trend you wish to try should contain essential nutrients. If you decide to go gluten-free, remember to complement the diet with food rich in fibre, minerals, and vitamins.

References

  1. Molina-Infante J, Santolaria S, Sanders DS, Fernández-Bañares F. 2015. Systematic review: noncoeliac gluten sensitivity. [Accessed 18 October 2021] 
  2. Alessio, Fasano. 2012. Zonulin, regulation of tight junctions, and autoimmune diseases. [Accessed 18 October 2021]

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