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Here is where I share my thoughts, ideas and opinions about the world of nutrition, food and health. I hope you find good sense, helpful guidance and inspiration to eat great healthy food that makes you feel good.

I write regularly for GI News, an online newsletter for 60,000+ Australasian and International subscribers interested in the glycemic index (GI) and associated health topics such as diabetes, weight loss and a healthy heart. It’s a great read. http://www.gisymbol.com/category/gi-news/

 

10 Nov 2017

Are gluten free foods better?

Posted by Nicole Senior on Friday, November 10, 2017

In August, the Medical Journal of Australia published an article questioning the existence of non-coeliac gluten or wheat sensitivity. The article was hot media fodder, with most stories including a medical expert suggesting that most people avoiding gluten without being diagnosed with celiac disease didn’t actually need to. The article also concluded that gluten-free diets carry risks, are socially restricting and are costlier than regular diets. We were glad to see this article published and pleased to see this issue being raised because we’ve being saying something similar for years.

While a gluten free diet is the only treatment for coeliac disease, there are many that claim going gluten-free is the magic bullet to weight loss and optimum health for everyone. While there is no good evidence to back this up and a growing number of studies now suggesting it might have adverse effects, the marketing horse has already bolted and gluten-free foods are a large and growing category. We thought we’d take a closer look at them.

Gluten is a stretchy protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, oats, barley and triticale. This protein gives bread the ability to rise and form a light airy loaf. Gluten-free food alternatives are often made with starches and additives rather than wholegrain flours. It is perhaps no surprise that one review found that gluten-free diets are often lower in fibre and higher in saturated fat. This review also noted that gluten-free diets tend to have a higher glycemic index (GI). This is not helpful for overall metabolic health and may leave you feeling hungrier sooner.

We analysed the nutritional value of a muesli bar, mixed grain bread, and a flaked breakfast cereal compared with their gluten-free variants.

 

MUESLI BAR

BREAD

B’FAST CEREAL

NUTRIENT

Gluten-Free Muesli Bars

(35g serve)

Fruit & Nut Muesli Bars

(45g serve)

Gluten-free 5 Seeds

(2 slices 78g)

Mixed Grain

(2 slices (94g)

Gluten-free flakes

(40g serve)

Flakes

??

serve

Energy – kilojoules

614

768

866

980

640

620

Energy - calories

147

183

207

234

153

148

Protein (g)

3.0

4.1

4.9

9.0

2.6

7.9

Fat (g)

- Includes sat fat (g)

6.7

0.9

6.7

1.1

5.9

<1.0

3.0

<1.0

0.6

0.1

0.3

<0.1

Carbohydrates (g)

-Includes sugars (g)

17.7

10.5

25.1

7.8

32.1

3.0

40.4

2.8

33

5.5

26.6

5.8

Sodium (mg)

18

9

312

380

200

144

Dietary Fibre (g)

1.9

3.1

2.5

4.2

1.3

2.6

  

Because the serve sizes aren’t the same, it’s hard to make comparisons about kilojoules/calories, but there’s not a lot in it. Two significant differences stand out. When it comes to protein regular trumps gluten free by a significant margin. The same goes for dietary fibre (something we all need more of).

The down sides of gluten-free

Another factor to consider is the glycemic index (GI) of food. While the glycemic index of the bread we refer to above has not been tested, another similar gluten-free multigrain bread on the market was found to have a high GI (79). Many regular wholegrain breads have a low-medium GI, including this one with a low GI (53). Low GI foods give you more stable blood glucose levels following your meal.

Gluten-free diets tend to be low on grains that are an important source of B vitamins. For example, folate is essential prior to and during pregnancy to help reduce the risk of neural tube defects, and folate is also important for heart health.

Studies have shown that eating wholegrains regularly protects against type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. Avoiding gluten unnecessarily in the pursuit of good health may have the opposite effect.

 The bottom line

  • The gluten-free diet is best for people with celiac disease, but unlikely to be of benefit for the rest of us.
  • A gluten-free diet should only be undertaken after a confirmed diagnosis and best managed with the help of a qualified dietitian.
  • Gluten-free foods can be less healthy: lower in protein and fibre, and higher GI.