It’s the era of the gluten revolution – with an ever-expanding range of gluten-free options everywhere you look. The gluten-free food industry is booming, with a global market projected to exceed US$4 billion over the next three years.

 

Interestingly however, surveys indicate that approximately 10% of Australians are currently following a gluten restricted diet. This is around ten times more than the total number of Australians thought to have coeliac disease.

 

So why are we going gluten-free? Is gluten-free really a healthier choice? The answer, from a medical perspective, is no. Unless you have coeliac disease.

What Is Coeliac Disease?

Coeliac disease is more than just a ‘sensitive’ stomach, it’s a significant medical condition with potentially serious consequences if left untreated. When people with coeliac disease consume any gluten, the immune system reacts abnormally, damaging the lining of small intestine. This impairs absorption of nutrients and can lead to a wide range of symptoms and medical complications.

 

The only treatment is to avoid all foods containing gluten to allow the bowel lining to heal. This must be a strict dietary restriction for life.

 

Even tiny amounts of gluten (about 50mg – less than 1/100th of a slice of bread) can cause harm in people with coeliac disease. That’s why patients need to be obsessive about excluding gluten – for people with coeliac disease the gluten-free diet is not a fad, but a medical treatment.

 

It’s not rare. Coeliac disease is very common, affecting an estimated one in 70 Australians, with 80% of these currently undiagnosed.

 

Symptoms and Complications

 

The symptoms of coeliac disease can vary substantially, and may even go undetected. Some symptoms can be wrongly confused with irritable bowel syndrome or a sensitivity to wheat or other food, while other symptoms may be put down to stress or getting older.

Gluten – A Challenge To Avoid

 

Gluten is not just found in wheat, but also rye, barley and oats. So it’s not easy to exclude.

 

The obvious culprits are bread, pasta, cakes and pastries, but there are also ‘hidden’ traces of gluten found in sauces, processed foods, drinks and medicines.

 

To help identify foods containing gluten, all packaged foods have an ingredient list printed on the label. But beware, the product ingredient label may not list ‘gluten’ as a component. Instead, all ingredients and food additives derived from wheat, rye, barley, oats or triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye) must be declared on food labels.

To identify gluten-free foods, look for

 

• foods that are naturally gluten free, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, and fresh

 

unprocessed meats

 

• foods carrying the Coeliac Australia Endorsement logo

 

So Should I Remove Gluten From My Diet?

 

There are no known benefits to following a gluten-free diet in those who don’t have coeliac disease.

 

In fact, if you suspect that you may have coeliac disease, it’s medically important that you are tested for it before excluding gluten to ensure an accurate diagnosis.

 

While you may feel your symptoms improve on a gluten-free diet, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have coeliac disease. Many self-reported cases of wheat or gluten intolerance reported are not due to gluten, but an intolerance to the wheat’s carbohydrate component (fructans).

 

As such, you cannot self-diagnose coeliac disease. The symptoms are so similar to other conditions that an accurate diagnosis can only be made by testing for inflammatory markers in the blood and physical damage to the intestinal lining. So unless you are still consuming gluten, you cannot be diagnosed.

 

Talk to your doctor if you have symptoms, and separate the fads from the facts.


DISCLAIMER: This material contains general information about medical conditions and treatments and is intended for educational purposes only. It does not constitute medical or professional advice, nor should it be used for the purposes of diagnosing or treating any illness. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, you should consult your local pharmacist or health care provider to obtain professional advice relevant to your specific circumstances.