Claims of a gluten-free diet and its various health effects of relieving skin conditions, weight loss and boosting energy are aplenty. But why does this work and do we really need to avoid gluten and exclude it totally from our diet?
First up, what is gluten?
Gluten is a kind of protein that exists in grains such as wheat and its varieties (durum, semolina, spelt), rye, barley, malt and gluten-containing common foods such as pasta, noodle, bread, crackers etc. Gluten helps in maintaining the shape of food, holding the food together and most importantly, it gives the chewiness and acts as a thickening agent in our foods.
Gluten-free diet, as you have observed from the term, means to fully eliminate food items that contain gluten. Originally, this elimination diet was meant for people who are diagnosed with celiac disease, whereby gluten that exists in their food would trigger an immune response that attacks the small intestine, causes damage and prevents nutrients from being absorbed properly into the body. Celiac patients would experience diarrhea, fatigue, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, whereas some may experience eczema-like rash or bumps. In view of this condition, a gluten-free diet can be of help to celiac disease patients.
For healthy individuals however, there is no extra benefit from eliminating gluten from diet, although it is safe to follow. Practising a gluten-free diet would not pose any adverse health effects, with the condition of replacing eliminated food items with nutritious ones. However, there are studies that report that many of the gluten-free foods are not enriched and may be deficient in some nutrients such as dietary fibre, iron and B vitamins (folate, niacin, riboflavin and thiamine). Hence, long term gluten-free diet practice without proper nutritious food replacement could potentially cause micronutrients deficiencies and lead to various health issues.
In conclusion, a gluten-free diet is formulated for those who are diagnosed with celiac disease. There is no harm in practising a gluten-free diet for any healthy individual, as long as he or she mindfully replaces gluten-containing grains with more nutritious options. The rule of thumb would still be practising a balanced diet to maintain optimal health.