Hidden dangers of going gluten-free, if you’re not ~actually~ gluten intolerant

From poor gut health to iron deficiency, dietitian Melissa Meier exposes the surprising side effects of following a gluten-free diet.

Rewind a decade or two and nobody had a clue what ‘gluten’ was.

If you mentioned it to a waiter at a restaurant, they’d look at you as if you had two heads (trust me, I was there). But now, in 2020, every man and their dog knows what gluten is, and many of them are trying to avoid it.

For some, a gluten free diet is essential in the management of an autoimmune condition called coeliac disease. In a nutshell, this is a condition in which the lining of the bowel becomes inflamed after consuming gluten. Amongst many other side effects, this reduces nutrient absorption. It’s pretty serious stuff.

For the vast majority of people, however, following a gluten free diet is simply unnecessary. While it’s oh-so trendy and might seem like a healthier way to eat, the health halo just doesn’t live up to the hype.

Yes, gluten is found in many not-so-healthy foods, like pastries, biscuits and deep fried chicken – but these foods aren’t ‘unhealthy’ because of the gluten they contain. Rather, it’s the saturated fat and/or tonnes of added sugar that make these foods occasional treats instead of everyday foods.

But here’s a harsh reality check: gluten is also found in *many* healthy foods – and going without such foods could leave you deficient in several essential nutrients. Over time, that could cause some rather unpleasant side effects. Here’s what I mean.

1. Fibre

You probably know fibre as the good guy for gut health – and while fibre is important for keeping your bowels regular, it does so much more than that. Fibre works to balance your blood sugars and improve your cholesterol profile. It can also protect against diseases like bowel cancer, and because it slows down digestion, it’ll help you feel full and satisfied long after a meal, too.

Apart from fruit and veg, fibre is rich in grain foods, many of which contain gluten, like bread, pasta and rolled oats. If you wipe them off your menu without replacing them with appropriate alternatives, your diet will automatically be lower in fibre, and you risk missing out on it’s impressive health benefits.

2. Wholegrains

Again, think brown bread, wholemeal pasta and rolled oats. These foods are scientifically proven to benefit your health – they help to fight diseases like diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. So, wipe them off your plate and you risk missing out on their proven health perks.

Luckily, there are many grains that are gluten free, like rice and corn, so if you must follow a gluten free diet, it’s essential that these alternatives are included instead.

3. Iron

This nutrient is essential for transporting oxygen around your body and supporting your immune system. Without enough, you’ll feel tired and lethargic, and your immune function could reduce.

But what does iron have to do with gluten?! You might be surprised to learn that grain foods can make a significant contribution to your daily iron intake. There’s two reasons for this. The first is that wholegrain foods naturally contain iron, and the second is that some grain foods are fortified with iron (read: iron is added to them during the manufacturing process). So, stop eating your usual bread, breakfast cereal and other grains, and your iron intake could drastically reduce.

The verdict

As you can tell, many of the problems with a gluten free diet stem from removing a gluten-containing food and not replacing it with a gluten free alternative. So, if you must follow a gluten free diet, don’t stress – it’s easy enough to have a nutritionally adequate diet as long as you include suitable substitutions. Phew!

Melissa Meier is a Sydney-based Accredited Practising Dietitian. You can connect with her at www.honestnutrition.com.au or on Instagram @honest_nutrition.