Meet the latest dietary miracle: the gluten-free diet

Meet the latest dietary miracle

Meet the latest dietary miracle

by Gianluca Tognon

It’s become a fad for nutritionists to promote a gluten-free diet, even in the absence of a proved intolerance to it. People are supposed to exclude gluten when affected by celiac disease, an immune disorder detected through a blood test and intestinal biopsy. However, according to many specialists, even those of us who are not affected by this disease, apparently can have some form of intolerance or sensitivity, causing symptoms ranging from bloating to rashes. The issue can become incredibly complicated since, according to recent study [1], even products traditionally not linked to celiachia like quinoa (which does not contain gluten because it is not a grain) can, if eating particular strains, stimulate the same immune reaction at levels similar to those for gliadin.

In my practice as a nutritionist, I have often listened to patients reporting less bloating after I prescribe them a balanced diet, but I have always considered this reaction as partially due to a sort of placebo effect stimulated by the fact that the nutritionist they trusted was giving them a diet, which was supposed to be healthy. And believe me, I have seldom recommended the absolute exclusion of products containing gluten, while instead I generally advice people (and still do), to increase variety when choosing foods including grains. One of the reasons why I would be very careful in suggesting the total exclusion from diet of the whole category of gluten products, is that people who really have gluten intolerance but decide to go on a gluten-free diet, might be masking the signs that would allow a doctor to get an exact diagnosis and look for related problems, such as fragile bones.

Therefore, many gluten shunners may have no real trouble with gluten, instead they feel better because they consume fewer fast and processed foods, which tend to contain gluten. They are eating more fruit and vegetables, which is a good thing. Moreover, since eating fewer grains also means reducing the intake of carbohydrates, I guess that the “gluten-free diet” is, for some smart colleagues, just a new marketing strategy to advertise a low-carb diet, pretending that it is something else and more “à la page”. Yes, because in fact, among the long list of allegations to this food component, I found one saying that eating a diet rich in gluten-containing products promotes obesity. Some others, more philosophically, see the whole thing from an historical point of view, claiming that as primitive humans we rarely ate many grains, while we are now heavily dependent on one single cereal (wheat) and intakes are higher than ever. This is a piece of the theory that justifies for instance, dietary patterns differentiated according to the blood type.

Although I am skeptical by nature, I have to admit that I agree that humans are consuming far more gluten-based products than necessary and this can not only have some consequence on our health status. Additionally, some environmental concern can also be raised, since we push more and more on the same grain, thus favoring monoculture, which is a known cause of the impoverishment of agricultural soils. However, I am also strongly positive that the solution cannot be the opposite exaggeration, a habit that apparently many nutritionists cannot do without.

I would instead recommend a reduction in the intake of these grains in favor of others (different rice varieties, oats, barley, but also cereal-like products such as quinoa or buckwheat). This would stimulate more variety both in dietary and in agricultural practices. Additionally, I would strongly recommend to choose wholegrain products which are an important component of what is now only remains of the traditional Mediterranean diet. And I can tell you that, in my native country of Italy, only 98% of the population report consuming unrefined grain products less than once a week!

In conclusion, as I share in my report on healthy nutrition, it is obviously important to improve the quality of the whole diet, choosing high quality protein, fat and carbohydrate sources. This means for instance, favor proteins and fats from vegetables rather than animal products as well as carbohydrate from unrefined rather than refined sources. Gluten is only a nutrient and its exclusion from diet cannot be a magic bullet solving an infinite list of health problems. Rather, it is much more important to be careful in the choice of foods and in following a healthy dietary pattern and particularly, a healthy lifestyle.


Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon is an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. He started his career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden. He has been involved in several EU research projects and has extensively worked and published on the association between diet, longevity and cardiovascular risk across the lifespan, also studying potential interactions between diet and genes. His work about the Mediterranean diet in Sweden has been cited by many newspapers worldwide including the Washington Post and The Telegraph among others. As a speaker, he has been invited by Harvard University and the Italian multi-national food company Barilla.

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About Me

I’m an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. I started MY career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden.

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