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Are Gluten-Free Products Healthier Than Regular Foods? Probably Not, Study Finds

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Are Gluten-Free Products Healthier Than Regular Foods? Probably Not, Study Finds

These days, more and more people are claiming that a gluten-free diet can help with bloating, exhaustion, and headaches. It seems that the number of people suffering from celiac disease has risen dramatically in the last 60 years and, according to some researchers, nobody is sure why.

Most “celiac sufferers” nowadays have not had a proper diagnosis, but have diagnosed themselves using Google. In many cases, there is no need to remove gluten from the diet. The spreading of the fad has led health and food industries to jump on the bandwagon, laughing all the way to the bank.

Celiac disease statistics

People with a true gluten problem make up just one per cent of the global population. Just one in a hundred people are likely to have problems eating foods which contain gluten (a protein). They usually have had a proper diagnosis, including a gut biopsy. Any food made from wheat, rye, and barley —  couscous, pasta, cakes, bread, cereals, crackers and muffins — are likely to cause stomach problems ranging from diarrhoea to vomiting. These people have to stick to a rigid gluten-free diet and be very careful about what they are consuming. They usually eat eggs, fresh meat, potatoes, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.

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Gluten-free is a fad

The gluten-free diet seems to be a trend that will take time to die down. Some celebrities have made public their passion for gluten-free diets. In Italy, the incidence of celiac disease has been taken seriously. Today, gluten-free pasta and pizza are readily available. The Mediterranean diet has been adapted to fit with these dietary restrictions.

What is the problem?

People have become aware of this fad because of massive hype and advertising. The real cause of celiac disease is that the gluten protein contained in all those pastries and pasta causes an auto-immune reaction. The body treats gluten as an enemy and reacts accordingly to get rid of it. It can be very painful and rather uncomfortable.

Are gluten-free foods any healthier?

Many people who have not had a proper diagnosis see gluten as the number one enemy and mistakenly think avoiding it will solve all their health problems. They purchase gluten-free foods, which can be quite expensive.

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Are these foods really more nutritious and healthier? The research suggests that they are not.

Dr. Jason Wu and his team led research on this at the University of Sydney’s George Institute for Global Health. They found that there was little nutritional difference in the 3,200 gluten-free products that they tested. These products had lower levels of protein and fewer vitamins and minerals, which were compensated for with higher amounts of salt and sugar. This suggests that the gluten-free products are not ideal from a nutritional point of view. But, for the genuine celiac sufferer, they give extra options that can be made up for by opting for healthier choices when eating other foods.

“Many people need gluten-free food, but there is a growing group who are only trying it for its apparent healthiness.” – Dr. Jason Wu

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Beware of the labels

Food labels are a two-edged sword. They can provide useful information on what you are about to eat, but they can also be misinterpreted. Advertisers have no qualms about misleading the public. There is a growing perception that gluten-free foods are healthier.

There is also another problem in that when people see healthy labels, like “bio,” “organic,” “low-fat,” and “gluten- free,” they tend to eat a lot more than they normally would. This is known as the “health halo” effect.

“Misinterpretation by consumers, especially of junk foods, that gluten-free means they are healthy is a real concern.” – Dr. Jason Wu

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The old rules still apply

Unless you are a celiac sufferer, you can ignore all those gluten-free food labels and just follow the good old rules. Avoid any highly processed foods and go for whole grains with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.

If you suspect that gluten intolerance may be at the root of your ill health, why not get a proper diagnosis? You could solve a lot of problems and save a lot of money by not unnecessarily buying gluten-free products. Don’t be swayed by all the celebrities that have told the whole world about their dietary concerns.

Featured photo credit: Gluten-Free Banana Bread with Yoghurt and Berries/Alpha via flickr.com

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Robert Locke

Author of Ziger the Tiger Stories, a health enthusiast specializing in relationships, life improvement and mental health.

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