If you haven’t heard of ‘going gluten-free’, then you must be living under a rock! Gluten-free diets are followed by many people nowadays.
If you have coeliac disease or a gluten intolerance, avoiding gluten-containing grains (wheat, barley and rye) can alleviate unpleasant gut symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhoea. But gluten-free diets have become a popular diet trend, with some believing gluten-free is a healthier way of eating or will help you lose weight.
Navigating the gluten-free world can be tricky. And now, with the increasing number of gluten-free products in our supermarkets, it’s even more confusing than ever. Here are 7 mistakes about gluten-free diets that people commonly make—and how you can fix them.
1. Not understanding what gluten is or why you’re following a gluten-free diet
Often associated with carbohydrates, gluten is actually a protein contained in wheat: for instance, spelt, kamut, faro, freekeh and bulgar as well as other wheat-containing grains like barley and rye.
For people with coeliac disease, even a small amount of gluten (think a tiny breadcrumb so small it’s hardly visible) can cause an immune reaction, which can seriously damage the small intestines and prevent the absorption of important nutrients, such as calcium, iron and B vitamins.
This leads to deficiencies and chronic conditions like osteoporosis and bowel cancer. Coeliac disease is usually recognised by symptoms of stomach pain, diarrhoea and bloating, but some people have no symptoms. The only way to manage the disease is a strict, life-long avoidance of gluten-containing grains.
In those with gluten intolerance, there’s no damage to the gut and no immune system activation. It’s therefore harder to diagnose but the symptoms are similar to coeliac disease. The good news is that you don’t need to be so strict with your gluten-free diet. A little cheating won’t have such serious consequences.
2. Believing that gluten-free eating helps with weight loss
This misconception may come from the fact that wheat can make you feel a little bloated and ‘fat’. But the truth is, gluten has no effect on your weight! If you swear by gluten-free for weight loss or have heard a success story, then you aren’t alone. Weight loss can be achieved by giving up any one food group in your diet with a mere reduction in calories.
If your gluten-free diet is helping you lose weight, chances are you’ve just cut out carbohydrates and not replaced them with good quality, gluten-free wholegrains, like quinoa or buckwheat. Most people find restricted diets hard to sustain long term and end up gaining weight over time. The best way to achieve permanent weight loss is a balanced diet including wholefoods (sorry, no gimmicks here—only science).
The issue with oats is twofold:
- Oats are generally contaminated with gluten
- There are wheat-free oats (pure and uncontaminated), however, some people with coeliac disease still react
It’s therefore standard practice to avoid them.
If you’re watching your weight but also need to adopt a gluten-free diet, you should seek advice from an accredited practicing dietitian (see mistake 5).
3. Misreading labels (coeliacs only!)
Label reading skills are absolutely essential if you have coeliac disease (remember, even a tiny speck of gluten is a problem). For those just limiting gluten for symptom control, labels are not as important.
Knowing how to detect gluten is your biggest weapon when it comes to controlling your symptoms. If there’s ever any doubt, always walk away. It’s better to be safe than sorry. The biggest ingredients to look out for are wheat, barley, rye and oats. Next come common suspects like flours, starches, thickeners, maltodextrins and yeast extracts, which could be wheat-derived.
Our governing authority on food labelling Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) oversees mandatory labelling of any allergens, such as gluten. This means if gluten is present, either by ingredient or cross-contamination, it will be found on the label somewhere.
First point of call—can you see the words ‘gluten free’? If so, this product is automatically safe and overrides anything else you see on the label. Next—can you find any gluten-containing ingredients? If any of the common suspects are gluten-containing, they may be listed as thickener 1420 (from wheat). This isn’t safe because wheat has been specified.
If ‘wheat’ isn’t listed in the brackets it will likely be gluten-free. But before deciding, check for advisory statements. If gluten is present by cross-contamination, it may be listed as a caution, for instance: This product contains wheat; or May contain traces of gluten due to shared equipment. If this is the case, people with coeliac disease must avoid it!
It is best to check labels each time you buy even your regular products, as companies may change recipes or locations of manufacture. Just because it’s safe once, doesn’t mean it’s always safe!
4. Not taking care with cross-contamination (coeliacs only!)
Because the smallest brush with gluten may still cause long-term damage to your gut and increase your risk of bowel cancer, infertility and other chronic conditions, this step is a must—and one that’s often forgotten.
Avoiding cross-contamination means upholding practices such as:
- Labelling your gluten-free foods clearly in the kitchen
- Separating your spreads from the rest of the family (crumbs are unavoidable)
- Cooking gluten-free foods first, then cooking gluten-containing foods
- Using a separate toaster (the biggest crumb collector in the house)
- Cleaning/wiping down chopping boards and kitchen utensils carefully between use with gluten-containing foods
- Taking extra care when eating outside of home (assuming something is gluten-free because it looks gluten-free may have ramifications)
5. Buying everything with a gluten-free label
Just because its gluten free doesn’t mean it’s healthy. With the explosion of the gluten-free fad, there are now dozens of carb-laden (but gluten free) products which are high GI and lacking fibre. Think white rice, rice crackers, gluten-free breads/pancakes/bagels and other baked goods.
These products are highly refined, contain shockingly low amounts of fibre (important for protecting your gut microbiome) and leave you unsatisfied and hungry for more. High GI carbohydrates like these cause a higher spike in blood sugar levels and insulin, raising risk factors for obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Instead of adopting a gluten-free diet by looking for the words ‘gluten free’, opt for naturally gluten-free wholefoods such as quinoa, millet, teff, lentils and other legumes, as well as fruit, vegetables, nuts/seeds, low-fat dairy and healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil.
If you do rely on bread, cereals and snack foods always look out for wholegrain varieties such as Burgen Soy and Linseed Gluten Free bread and Sanitarium Gluten Free Weetbix.
6. Neglecting the rest of your diet
Going gluten-free means paying attention to one particular food group—carbohydrates. Try not to lose sight of your whole diet. Don’t neglect fruit and vegetables (aim for 2 and 5 serves respectively). Choose lean protein, such as legumes, fish and skinless chicken.
Monitor your portion sizes (a gluten-free diet doesn’t mean you have a license to eat more). Use anti-inflammatory fats such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado and natural nut butters. And maintain a high intake of fibre by including wholegrains, nuts and legumes daily.
7. Failing to seek help from an expert
It is always better to be safe than sorry. If you feel unsure about your diet, book in to see a dietitian for a dietary review. We can help you clarify your knowledge of a gluten-free diet and make sure you don’t make any mistakes.
Sue Radd is an Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian and one of Australia’s leading nutritionists and health communicators. Her most recent book Food as Medicine: Eating for Your Best Health received the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for Best Health and Nutrition Book in the world for 2016.