The gluten-free food industry is booming with recent figures estimating the US market to reach $4.2 billion by the end of the year. But with the specialist diet carrying costs of up to $500 extra a year and experts warning that people self-prescribring the diet can lead to both weight gain and risks of malnutrition, is it as good an option as people think?
Gluten-free diets are usually followed by people with coeliac disease, which prevents a person from digesting gluten. Untreated, the disease can lead to serious health issues such as osteoporosis, diabetes and cancer.
One in 100 people are affected by coeliac in Australia, but Dr Jason Tye-Din, a gastroenterologist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Research, said 10 percent of Australians are following a gluten-free diet. The Australian market is forecast to hit $98.6 million by 2015.
Does gluten-free equal healthy?
"There is this growing public perception that a gluten free lifestyle is a healthy lifestyle in general," Dr Tye-Din said.
"The gluten free food industry has pushed it as a healthy choice. Like other things that are preservative-free or don't have lactose, many people think that it's healthier."
But going gluten-free can lead to weight gain because commercially available gluten-free foods are often high in fat, sugar and calories.
"People who commence the gluten free diet without specialist dietary input put themselves at risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, lower fibre intake, and potentially higher calorie intake," Dr Tye-Din said.
"This is not a fad, lifestyle diet that is generally magical for everyone - it is a medical treatment specific for a serious medical condition (coeliac disease), and as for any treatment, it needs to be undertaken properly to get the benefits, and avoid some of the shortcomings (restricted food choices leading to potential nutrient and fibre deficiencies)."
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Many coeliac patients experience some weight gain after taking up a gluten-free diet, because their bowels heal and are able to absorb nutrients again.
Patients with autism, ADHD and multiple sclerosis continue to take up the diet, feeling they have benefitted from cutting out gluten, even though there is no medical studies to back up those claims.
Dr Tye-Din thinks that most of the information about gluten seems to be driven by blogs, the food industry and naturopaths rather than the medical industry.
"I see a lot of patients who have started a gluten-free diet on the advice of a well-meaning friend or a naturopath and a lot of people just feel better on it, it doesn't necessarily mean they have coeliac disease," he said.
"It's an interesting phenomenon. We're getting a real boom that's driven by popular demand, but whether it's medically justified is unknown."
Coeliac disease symptoms
The symptoms of coeliac disease can include stomach cramps, bloating, anaemia, lethargy and diarrhoea.
But Dr Tye-Din said it was important to get tested by a GP before cutting gluten from your diet.
Not only does it make it harder for doctors to test for coeliac disease, but cutting out gluten can also lead to malnutrition if the diet is incorrectly followed.
It's also an expensive diet, with gluten-free foods thought to cost up to $500 extra a year.
Coeliac Australia is the peak body for information and research about coeliac disease. NSW CEO David Sullivan said an increasing number of manufacturers are seeking endorsement for gluten-free products, but a number of products are being withdrawn because the volume of sales is not profitable.
He said celebrities like tennis player Novak Djokovic, who attributes his taking of the number one ranking earlier this year with a diagnosis of coeliac disease and subsequent gluten-free diet, are helping to drive the "gluten-free 'fad diet' market".
The case against gluten
But health coach and creator of Supercharged Food Lee Holmes told ninemsn that natural health experts and nutritionists believe gluten has links with eating disorders, infertility, eczema, depression and hormonal disorders.
She doesn't eat gluten and doesn't suffer from coeliac disease.
"Nutritionists and natural health care providers are treating the secondary effects of gluten consumption, such as infections, probiotic imbalance, hormonal imbalance and nutritional deficiencies with a gluten free diet and for many people the results are extremely positive," Holmes said.
"Gluten and its consumption have been in the news and media a lot over the past couple of years and many people have discovered for themselves that eating less gluten products or being gluten free has made them feel a lot healthier, lighter and more energised.
"There has been a lot of publicity about gluten-free diets and weight loss and it's easy for people to mistakenly believe that a gluten-free diet is just another fad diet or weight loss strategy."
But she also recommended that anyone wanting to cut gluten from their diet seeks help from a doctor or nutritionist.
Your say: Do you follow a gluten-free diet? Does it work for you? Share your thoughts below.
Author: Laura Wakely
Approving editor: Rory Kinsella.