Many popular diets, such as Paleo, Whole30 and Atkins, strictly limit or completely restrict consumption of grains, often stating that they cause inflammation and chronic disease. Gluten-free products are booming as many consumers believe that gluten-free equals to the healthier option.
Gluten should indeed be avoided by people suffering from coeliac disease. It’s an auto-immune disease whereby the consumption of gluten triggers the immune system to attack the small intestine, damaging its cells. This causes the gut to be more permeable, allowing undigested food, toxins and bacteria to get into the blood stream, which does, indeed, cause inflammation. However, it is estimated that around 1% of the population have coeliac disease. For the rest of the 99% there has not been a randomised controlled trial (the only way to scientifically establish whether a particular foods or diets have a certain health outcome) that shows that gluten causes inflammation. Some people do suffer from non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, and can experience symptoms such as bloating, winds and diarrhoea, however this area is not yet well-researched and a test for this has yet to be found.
Even if your preference is to avoid gluten, there are a number of whole grains that do not contain gluten, such as rice, millet, quinoa, buckwheat and oats. Such grains, as well as the ones that do contain gluten, such as wheat, rye and spelt, have a vast number of health benefits. They are an excellent source of dietary fibre, and rich sources of vitamins, minerals and numerous phytochemicals. Benefits include:
Reduces cholesterol, thereby reducing the risk of cardio-vascular disease
Regulates blood glucose levels and improves insulin resistance, thereby reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes
Improves digestive health by increasing good bacteria in the gut
Promotes satiety, which may help in weight loss
Vitamins, Minerals and Phytochemicals
B vitamin complex: vital for energy production
Vitamin E: an anti-oxidant that binds to free radicals in the body and lowers the risk of disease
Magnesium: maintains bone health, supports the nervous system
Phytochemicals: plant compounds that are associated with reduced risk of common ageing diseases
Unsaturated Fatty Acids
Increase “good” cholesterol and reduce “bad” cholesterol
Shown to reduce total cholesterol when replacing saturated fat, leading to decreased risk of heart disease
The reality is, most people eat relatively little wholegrain. Most grains consumed are ready-to-eat cereal which typically contains a vast amount of added refined sugars, processed biscuits and crackers, and white bread, pasta and rice, which are made of
refined grains, whereby the outer bran and inner germ layers are removed. Refined grains contain significantly less dietary fibre (~80% less so than their wholegrain counterparts), and substantially less minerals, vitamins and phytonutrients.
So while popular carb-bashing diets do promote health by banning refined, processed grains, whole grains add important benefits to a healthy, balanced diet, when well-cooked, to ensure all the nutrients become available.