Gluten-free diet under scrutiny

QUESTIONS: Monash University and Middle Island Medical Clinic dietitian Ruth Walker has backed a report that looks at the merit, or not, of a gluten-free diet. Picture: Rob Gunstone
QUESTIONS: Monash University and Middle Island Medical Clinic dietitian Ruth Walker has backed a report that looks at the merit, or not, of a gluten-free diet. Picture: Rob Gunstone

Cutting gluten out of your diet could be costly for both your health and hip pocket, according to a Monash University report. 

The report found that while one per cent of Australians were affected by coeliac disease, 11 per cent of the population followed a gluten-free diet by choice.

Complied by gastroenterologist and clinical epidemiologist Suzanne Mahady, the report says there is no evidence for people without coeliac disease that supports claims a strict gluten-free diet is beneficial for health. 

Dr Mahady said it was even possible the avoidance of dietary whole grains, resulting in a low fibre intake, may be detrimental.

“Gluten-free products such as plant-based foods, ancient grains and dairy are all part of a healthy and balanced diet,” she said.

“But there does not seem to be a health benefit for the processed and packaged gluten-free replacements over wheat-based versions.

“Packaged gluten-free products often have added sugars to enhance flavour, and add emulsifiers and thickeners to improve the texture and make it similar to bread.”

She also questioned the economics of going gluten free by choice. “Given gluten-free foods cost about 17 per cent more, perhaps it’s time to reconsider a strict gluten-free diet chosen for health benefits alone, and instead include a diversity of gluten and gluten-free foods,” she said.

“Gluten-free markets have risen exponentially in the past decade due to consumer demand, even extending to the production of gluten-free food for dogs. Whether the market will expand or diminish with time is unknown, but food fashions are not new.”

The report explains the difference between coeliac disease and gluten intolerance. While gluten damages the intestine’s lining for people with coeliac disease, for those with intolerance it causes bloating and wind but no long-term health effects.

Ruth Walker, a dietitian who shares her time between Monash University and Middle Island Medical Clinic in Warrnambool, said the report contained no surprises.

“I see patients all the time who are following a gluten-free diet when they don't need to be,” Ms Walker said.

“These patients have usually done a bit of research themselves. It’s really important that people don't self-prescribe a gluten-free diet before being tested for coeliac disease. If they have gastrointestinal issues after having foods that contain gluten, it’s best to see the doctor or dietitian first to rule out coeliac disease or diagnose irritable bowel syndrome.” 

  • Ms Walker will host a session on the topic on August 8 at the clinic.