Sales of gluten-free products continue to rise in Australia. Last year CSIRO conducted a study into the trend and found that as many as 1 in 10 Australians were avoiding or limiting their consumption of wheat-based products. But what are the facts behind the fad?
Coeliac disease is the name of the genetic condition which causes a person’s immune system to react abnormally to gluten, causing small bowel damage. If left undiagnosed, it can have serious and far-reaching consequences.
Coeliac Australia estimate that 1 in 70 Australians have the disease – significant, but a far cry from the huge numbers of people going gluten free.
Dr David Clift, a pathologist from Geelong specialising in gastrointestinal conditions, warns that people who decide they need to go gluten-free but do not seek medical advice or proper testing could be risking their health, in some cases with cancer;
“Poorly managed Coeliac Disease can lead to a variety of issues including osteoporosis or certain cancers. 1 in 20 people with Coeliac Disease who routinely consume gluten (sometimes unknowingly) will develop a form of lymphoma with a poor prognosis. It amazes me that so many are willing to ‘wing it’ with such a serious condition.”
The symptoms of coeliac disease can be similar to other gut conditions so it’s important to know that you’re getting the correct treatment. And gluten can be present in unexpected foods like processed meats, marinades and spices, so medical support is vital to help people with the disease adhere to the strict diet.
A study published by Monash University Professor Peter Gibson in 2011 proposed the existence of ‘gluten sensitivity’ – a ‘coeliac lite’ version causing symptoms in people without Coeliac Disease. This was seized upon by the burgeoning wellness market but in 2015 Gibson followed up his findings with two much larger studies that disproved gluten sensitivity existed. Dr Clift adds;
“There is more speculation than evidence about diet on the internet. Some people attribute an improvement in digestive symptoms to a gluten-free diet. But by cutting out gluten, you are reducing processed foods and additives that may be the real cause of gut pain.
Coeliac disease is not a sliding scale – you either have it or you don’t and it is a shame this myth persists. The only way to know for sure is to get tested.”
But is there a problem with going gluten free if you don’t have coeliac disease?
Well your bank account might think so. On average a gluten-free diet for a family of four will be 17% more expensive than a routine diet.1
Not to mention, unnecessarily restricting your diet may have negative effects on your health.
Removing grains from the diet can reduce intake of vital nutrients. In children this may interfere with growth. And if you don’t have symptoms, there is no evidence that a gluten-free diet will provide you with any health benefits. Coeliac Australia estimate that 80% of Australians with coeliac disease are currently living undiagnosed. Their advice? If you have symptoms, get tested.
- Lambert et al “Cost and affordability of a nutritionally balanced gluten-free diet: Is following a gluten-free diet affordable?” Nutrition and Dietetics Feb 2016