According to Dr Jacques Badenhorst, a gastroenterologist, you may not need to deprive yourself of foods that contain gluten

Gluten has become a swear word in a world overtaken by fad diets. However, Cape-based gastroenterologist Dr Jacques Badenhorst says there are only three groups of people who have a medical condition which means they should not eat gluten. The rest of the population should not be avoiding it.

Who shouldn’t eat gluten?

“Gluten is only bad for you if you have coeliac disease, a wheat allergy, or a gluten intolerance, which is a small minority of people. If you’re not sure, it’s helpful to work with a dietitian or gastroenterologist to get diagnosed.”

What is the difference between coeliac disease, gluten allergy and gluten intolerance?

“People who have been diagnosed with coeliac disease definitely need to avoid gluten at all times,” says Dr Badenhorst. “Coeliac disease is a severe autoimmune reaction and when someone with coeliac disease eats gluten, it causes diarrhoea, bloating, fatigue, malnutrition and damage to the lining of the gut – with the potential of damaging the small intestine if left untreated. “Coeliac disease sufferers may experience severe reactions from just a dusting of wheat flour on their food.”

The disease affects about one per cent of the population and can be diagnosed with a blood test. If that’s inconclusive, a gastroenterologist may perform additional tests, like a biopsy. The only treatment is a lifelong, gluten-free diet.

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“There are also people who have a non-coeliac gluten intolerance. These people do not have coeliac disease, but their doctor has determined that they can’t eat gluten. Symptoms can include bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhoea or constipation, headaches and tiredness – amongst others.”

“Finally, a gluten allergy is when someone experiences signs of allergic reaction when they eat gluten,” says Dr Badenhorst.

“People who suffer from a wheat allergy would likely experience typical allergic reactions — symptoms like swelling, hives and difficulty breathing.”

Are gluten-free diets healthy?

In defence of gluten

“For the rest of the population, gluten is not the evil ingredient that it has been made out to be,” says Dr Badenhorst.

He says that a recent study by Harvard Medical School indicated that an unnecessary gluten-free diet can cause heart problems and eliminating gluten can even slow down the metabolism, burning off fewer calories.

“Many gluten-free foods are also highly processed and contain fewer nutrients than their gluten counterparts. In fact, the complex carbohydrates found in food containing gluten are vital to the body. They provide fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that the body craves to stay full and satisfied.”

Dr Badenhorst concludes that ultimately it is important to resist diet trends and demonising certain foods without fully understanding them.

Important to note: If you suspect that you may have coeliac disease, gluten intolerance or a gluten allergy, Dr Badenhorst advises that you must NOT stop eating gluten before seeing your doctor to be tested, as this could result in a false negative diagnosis.

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While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.