Microscopy & Microtechniques

Should You Be Eating a Gluten-Free Diet?

May 19 2017 Comments 0

Love it or hate it, the gluten-free revolution has well and truly arrived. From exclusively GFD restaurants to celebrity bloggers and ‘free from’ supermarket branding, it seems like everyone has jumped onboard the gluten-free wagon. But is it a healthy choice? According to dietary experts, a gluten-free diet should not be eaten by people who haven’t been diagnosed with a gluten intolerance.

So, what exactly is gluten? Found in wheat, rye and barley, gluten is a protein that gives food a chewy, elastic texture during the baking process. While most people find it delicious, some face a string of symptoms from consuming gluten. Ranging from mild to extreme, they include vomiting, nerve problems, anaemia, inflammation and even an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

The gluten-free bandwagon

The UK is one of the biggest anti-gluten advocates, with research suggesting that 12% of new food products launched in 2016 carried gluten-free credentials. Thanks to an army of celebrity bloggers, chefs and lifestyle architects, the ‘free from’ market is rapidly gaining momentum. So much so that analysts predict that it will be worth a huge £550 million by 2019.

GFD is considered a healthy lifestyle choice by default, but now scientists are maintaining that gluten-free diets should be reserved only for those with coeliac disease. Medically, just 1% of Brits are genuinely gluten-intolerant. But statistically, more than 12% of British adults now adhere to a gluten-free diet. Why? One of the biggest reasons is an unfounded belief that it’s good for the heart.

The dangers of GFD

The stats come from researchers at Harvard University, who looked at data from nearly 120,000 people over a 26 year period. Not only did they find that gluten-free diets do not cut the risk of heart disease for non-coeliacs, but they also warn that restricting dietary gluten could jeopardise intake of whole grains, which are vital to heart health. Furthermore, the team also found that vetoing gluten could increase the risk of diabetes by up to 13%.

“The popularity of a low gluten or gluten-free diet in the general population has markedly increased in recent years,” comments Harvard Medical School’s Dr Andrew Chan. “However these findings underscore the potential that people who severely restrict gluten intake may also significantly limit their intake of whole grains, which may actually be associated with adverse cardiovascular outcomes.”

The final verdict? Regardless of how trendy a gluten-free diet may be, Chan stresses “The promotion of gluten-free diets among people without coeliac disease should not be encouraged.”

While some symptoms can be managed simply by tweaking diets, others call for medical intervention. For a closer look at the latest developments, ‘JEOL TEM at Diamond’s Electron Physical Sciences Imaging Centre (ePSIC)’ spotlights Diamond, the UK’s advanced synchrotron facility that’s helping researchers develop cutting edge new medicines and disease treatments.

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