In this day and age, we are increasingly exposed to the concept of “nutrition”, whether this be hypes in the media, a new trendy diet that everyone is talking about or even the run-of-the-mill food shopping at the supermarket. So, what exactly is “Nutrition”? Put simply, nutrition is the science of food at work in our bodies after it has been broken down via the digestion process, generating our primary source of energy. Think of nutrition as the building blocks of life and the interaction of nutrients which deliver observable health effects.
The essential nutrients for life include macronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids (fats), as well as fibre, micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, and water. The absorption of nutrients starts the moment we begin to digest our foods, as they are transported to assist all the metabolic processes in the human body.
Optimal nutrition translates into getting the right amount of nutrients from foods in the right combinations in relation to our body’s dietary needs– it often boils down to balance. Having a certain level of nutrition knowledge empowers you to make smart, healthy choices about the foods you eat on a daily basis and will help you achieve optimum health over your lifetime. Optimal nutrition is also key to avoiding poor health, and combating many of today’s most prevalent chronic diseases, for example obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Nutrition represents an important element in achieving and maintaining good health. Good health is defined as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being — a healthy mind, body, and spirit. Nutrition is of vital importance throughout our entire life-cycle — from childhood to adolescence, adulthood and in our senior years, with slightly differing nutritional requirements depending on which stage of our lives we are in. Nutrition can also help towards preventing and treating many of today’s common issues, such as stress, tiredness, weight gain, mood, maintain a healthy heart, food allergies, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, to name a few.
The nutrition world is extremely interesting but can also be quite complex and confusing. We are constantly learning new things about the food we eat and are often bombarded with contradicting messages in the media. Despite this well-known complexity, there is an emerging trend nowadays where people oversimplify nutrition and focus on individual components, or individual "superfoods" and nutrients rather than taking a holistic view on nutrition.
A factor that adds a layer of complexity, is that we consume food, not nutrients. Health professionals may encourage certain foods to be increased/decreased in order to improve someone’s overall diet and health; however, there is no such thing as a perfect food or the perfect diet. What is ‘right’ for me may not be ‘right’ for you, and neither would it suit every person in the world because each person is different- we all have differing, lifestyles, activity levels, medical histories, body composition and nutritional requirements. Nutrition is often very personal. However, there are main lines and general healthy eating advice that can be extracted and that apply to everyone.
What we eat and drink is so interwoven within the fabric of our culture, celebrations, emotional status, habits, and plays an important role in social interaction. Whether it is a drink with friends in a bar, a dinner date or catching up with your best friend over dinner and glass of wine, we bond and connect with each other while eating and drinking together. Remove the food and we take away our connections.
Nutrition also translates into health, and health represents a form of freedom. Being healthy not only can it make us feel and look great, it also enables us to enjoy and experience life to our fullest potential. Conversely, a poor diet can have a serious implications on health, and result in the inability to enjoy life to its potential.
The bottom line: Food represents so much more than simply the sum of the nutrients it contains.
The aim of these series of articles will be to explore the hot diets trending in 2015 and to provide you with an expert appraisal of the pros and cons of each diet. This will empower you by allowing you to make informed decisions whilst navigating this complex minefield in search of weight loss. This article will take a closer look at the already mainstream gluten- free diet fashion which celebrities are glamourising; does Gluten-free really deserve the popularity it receives and is there sound scientific evidence to back the conferred health effects everyone is raving about?
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein that is found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye which is ubiquitous in a broad range of foods, particularly cereal-based products such as pasta, bread, flour, cakes and breakfast cereals: beware, gluten also lurks in sauces, soups, ready meals and processed meats. It is also important to note that gluten is frequently present in beer derived from barley. Gluten, meaning “glue” in Latin, confers functional properties by providing the renowned elasticity attributes allowing bread and cakes to stretch and rise. People may convert to a gluten-free diet for a number of reasons. The most well-known motive includes being diagnosed with coeliac disease. Some people believe they have a gluten or wheat intolerance, prompting them to follow gluten-free. However, a growing portion of the population mistakenly believe that gluten is unhealthy, fattening and that by removing this component from the diet this will promote weight loss or confer health benefits.
A closer look at Coeliac Disease
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition. This is where the immune system – the body’s defense against infection – mistakes gluten as a threat and attacks healthy issue. This damages the lining of the small intestine disrupting the body's ability to absorb nutrients from the food. It is important to note that coeliac disease is not an intolerance or allergy to gluten. The exact cause of coeliac disease is not entirely clear, although a combination of genes and the environment appear to play a role. Strict adherence to a gluten-free diet brings complete resolution of symptoms. Potential long-term complications of coeliac disease, if the condition is not managed properly, include osteoporosis and several types of anaemia. Less common and more serious complications include those affecting pregnancy, such as having a low-birth weight baby and, some types of cancer, such as bowel cancer.
Wheat intolerance has a differing aetiology to coeliac disease, although the symptoms are similar; it is usually caused by a sensitivity to the fermentation of a carbohydrate in wheat rather than gluten. People with a wheat intolerance are usually much less sensitive than those suffering from coeliac disease and only need to exclude major sauces of wheat. Nevertheless, those with a wheat intolerance will still experience adverse symptoms from gluten-free products, as the remaining part of the wheat will still affect them. This means they do not need to buy gluten-free products or be concerned about small traces of wheat or gluten in foods; wheat-free is usually sufficient.
Symptoms such as abdominal bloating, pain and diarrhoea are very common and are usually caused by overeating rather than a food intolerance. If you overeat, of any type food, you may feel bloated and uncomfortable. Many, though, erroneously attribute symptoms of overeating to gluten which is present in many foods, and therefore likely to be consumed every time you overeat. Symptoms may also be caused by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It can be challenging to pinpoint the exact cause of the symptoms.
Gluten-Free and Weight Loss
It is becoming common belief that gluten makes you fat. However, apart from the small portion of the population who have coeliac disease, there is no scientific evidence to support that eliminating gluten promotes weight loss. However, gluten is often found in high energy containing foods such as cakes, biscuits, pastries and pies. It is these products, high in energy, which will lead to weight gain if eaten regularly – not the wheat or gluten.
The reason some people lose weight by following a gluten-free diet is because they reduce their intake of these energy-dense foods as well as reducing their overall food intake due to the restrictiveness of the permitted foods imposed by the diet. One would obtain the same result by reducing portion sizes and decreasing the frequency of consumption of such food items. In fact, many gluten-free products actually contain higher levels of fat, sugar and overall calories than their gluten containing alternatives as manufacturers have to compensate for the lack of taste and texture experienced by gluten removal. This may explain why often people gain weight on a gluten-free diet.
Risks of going Gluten–Free
The risks associated with a gluten-free diet need to be considered if you do not have a specific medical requirement to follow such a stringent diet. Gluten-free diets may result in nutritional inadequacies as they are highly restrictive. Furthermore, wholegrain breads and cereals, which contain gluten, are an important source of dietary fibre. Many following gluten-free diets tend to eat inadequate amounts of fibre, which may lead to constipation and some cancers of the digestive system. Another important negative attribute of gluten-free is the cost; gluten-free products are usually considerably more pricy than gluten-containing products.
Verdict: Is it advisable to follow a Gluten-Free diet
Unless it is strictly necessary and you have been clinically diagnosed with coeliac disease, then it is advisable not to embark on gluten-free. If you wish to lose weight, do it wisely: cut down on the “indulgence” foods, eat smaller portions and get moving. Going gluten-free with no medical prerequisite will not promote weight loss, and may actually be detrimental due to the possible nutritional inadequacy of the diet and it may be tough on the pocket. Never assume that you are automatically improving your health by jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon. If you are seeking a healthy and effective weight loss plan or if you suspect that you may have a wheat intolerance or coeliac disease, seek medical advice to ensure that you are meeting all of your nutrition needs. This will also help to systematically identify the causes of your symptoms without leading to unnecessary restriction of foods such as gluten.
Sophie Bruno is a Registered Dietitian living and working in Brussels (Belgium). Read Sophie's foodie blog which will enable you to learn, increase your knowledge & cultivate yourself in the field of nutrition & health directly from Brussels