New study reveals that gluten-free diets aren't as healthy as we'd like to think
Although there are many people out there living with gluten intolerance and/or coeliac disease, at some point, we've managed to co-opt gluten-free living as some kind of marker of a healthy life. Stepping away from rye, wheat and barley in our daily lives is something we don't really think about unless we really think about it, but on the surface, it seems like a great way to get even healthier.
But now, a new study has explained that if you're not gluten intolerance, that's not exactly the case. Published in the journal Nature Communications, the study explains that while you can lose weight by going on a gluten-free diet, that's more because of what you replace the gluten with.
Lead investigator Professor Oluf Pedersen, of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, says that this study could act as a "wake-up call to the food industry". For this study, the team looked at 60 healthy middle-aged Danish people, and assigned them randomly to one of two diets for eight weeks - low gluten (at 2g a day) or high gluten (18g).
There was also a break in between of eight weeks, where the test subjects ate around 12g of gluten a day. Here's what they found: those who ate low amounts of gluten reported less bloating and moderate changes in the intestinal microbiome (that's gut bacteria to you and me).
Sounds about normal, right? But here's the thing: during these low-gluten times, the subjects ate a lot more dietary fibres - like the ones found in brown rice, vegetables, and corn - which Pedersen says might have had a big say in these positive results.
"We demonstrate that, in comparison with a high-gluten diet, a low-gluten, fibre-rich diet induces changes in the structure and function of the complex intestinal ecosystem of bacteria, reduces hydrogen exhalation, and leads to improvements in self-reported bloating. Moreover, we observed a modest weight loss, likely due to increased body combustion triggered by the altered gut bacterial functions."
Pedersen and his research team also thought that while low-gluten diets make a lot of sense for people living with coeliac disease, they advised against a gluten-free diet if you weren't living with coeliac disease - which sees extreme reactions for even a trace amount.
"More long-term studies are definitely needed before any public health advice can be given to the general population. Especially, because we find dietary fibres – not the absence of gluten alone – to be the primary cause of the changes in intestinal discomfort and body weight."
In short, while people on low-gluten diets reported more health benefits, that's probably down to the other stuff than the gluten, and not eating gluten by itself isn't necessarily better. This is backed up by a study in the US which looked at 110,000 people and concluded that a low-gluten diet increased the risk of a heart attack by about 15 percent.
All in all, we should all take that gluten-free diet with more than a pinch of salt.