Manav Bajaj, Sport Nutritionist
Gluten free diets (GFD) seem to be the latest of many fad diets/trends that get blown out of proportion in the mainstream media while ignoring the scientific underpinnings of its existence. This has also been fueled by a number of high-profile athlete’s endorsing gluten free diets and correlating the absence of gluten in their diets to improved performance. There have also been instances where nutritionists /dieticians have made ‘tall’ claims in the literal sense by claiming that athletes have increased their height thanks to a GFD. Many also believe that a gluten free diet is simply a short cut to weight loss. It’s about time there is some research backed information put forth to clear any doubts that athletes would have regarding GFD.
So what is Gluten?Gluten is an indigestible protein found in grains like wheat, barley, rye and the derivatives of these grains. For most healthy individuals, gluten has no effect on the body as it is indigestible. However, people who are sensitive to gluten or have a condition called ‘Celiac disease’ see some negative health effects while consuming gluten.
Celiac disease is a hereditary autoimmune condition which results in damage in the small intestine when gluten is consumed. This damage to the inner lining of the small intestine and prevents absorption of nutrients which are essential for growth and development of the body. Other symptoms also include: fatigue, diarrhea, weight loss, anemia to name a few. At present, a GFD is the only solution for individuals suffering from Celiac disease and individuals who are sensitive to gluten. A 2017 survey showed that only 1% of the total population of North India may have celiac disease and similar numbers have been indicated in small scale surveys done in South India (Makharia et al. 2011).
While a GFD would certainly be beneficial to such individuals, it seems that the overall health benefits of being on a gluten free diet have been blown out of proportion. A recent survey in the USA showed that 36% of 1500 participants opted for a gluten free food option because they thought it was the healthier choice (Reilly 2016). A survey on google search trends also showed a wide and increasing gap between gluten free diets and celiac disease from 2004 to 2017 Another study also suggests that a GFD may restrict daily intake of carbohydraes because of a lack of availability of gluten free options or the gluten free options being more expensive due to the processing costs that the companies include in the price of the product (Barton and Murray 2008). This could lead to a restriction of excessive carbohydrate intake and could be explained as one of the reasons behind a GFD being purported as a weight loss diet. There is currently no evidence linking the consumption of gluten to weight gain or loss.
GFDs have also been linked to increased height in healthy individuals and there is no research-based evidence that backs this claim. One of the symptoms of celiac disease is stunted growth and therefore, a GFD may aid the growth of an individual suffering from celiac disease. Therefore, it is unreasonable to claim that gluten free foods would aid the growth of every healthy individual.
GFDs have been linked to nutrient deficiencies as research shows that a GFD can restrict intake of vital micronutrients such as Iron, niacin, folate, fiber and zinc (Wild et al. 2010). This is because of the excessive processing these foods go through. Deficiencies of any of these micronutrients can have a negative impact on health.
To conclude, it is advised that athletes and other healthy individuals who are not diagnosed with Celiac disease and/or are not sensitive to gluten understand and evaluate the pros and cons of a gluten free diet based on scientific evidence. They can then make an informed decision about whether a GFD would truly benefit their health and performance or whether it is just fiction that the mainstream media is overplaying.
Makharia, G., Verma, A., Amarchand, R., Bhatnagar, S., Das, P., Goswami, A. and Anand, K. (2011) Prevalence of celiac disease in the northern part of India: a community based study. Journal of gastroenterology and hepatology, 26 (5), 894-900.
Reilly, N. (2016) The gluten-free diet: recognizing fact, fiction, and fad. The Journal of pediatrics, 175 (1), 206-210.
Barton, S. and Murray, J. (2008) Celiac disease and autoimmunity in the gut and elsewhere. Gastroenterology Clinics of North America, 37 (2), 411-428.
Wild, D., Robins, G., Burley, V. and Howdle, P. (2010) Evidence of high sugar intake, and low fibre and mineral intake, in the gluten‐free diet. Alimentary pharmacology & therapeutics, 32 (4), 573-581.