In April 2021, Ghaziabad-based couple Pooja and Narendra Ghosh were prescribed insulin shots to manage their alarmingly high blood glucose levels. However, Pooja did not want to be insulin dependent and decided to make certain lifestyle changes to lower the glucose levels.
The main part of it, she says, was their adopting a gluten-free diet along with tweaking other eating habits. Today, not only are their sugar levels in control, but both have also shed considerable amount of weight after their diet changes.
“Going gluten-free was the best dietary choice that we made,” says Pooja Ghosh. Wheat flour was replaced with flours of various millets: ragi (finger millet), jowar (sorghum), bajra (pearl millet), rajgira (amaranth), and kangni or navane (foxtail).
Gluten (from the Latin word, meaning `to stick’) is a group of proteins naturally found in some cereals such as wheat, rye and barley. In people with celiac disease – an auto immune disorder – gluten may trigger inflammation and intestinal damage.
Some people also have non-celiac gluten sensitivity and allergies. A gluten-free diet is the answer to their problems.
Substitutes to wheat
Delhi-based homeopath Dr Pooja Bhargava was diagnosed with celiac disease around four years ago. She had always been anaemic and had thyroid issues. Investigations showed that she had celiac disease. Leaving gluten out of the diet was not a choice but a necessity, say Bhargava, 42.
Similarly, Anshu Vyas opted for a gluten-free diet 16 years back, again because of celiac disease. He says adopting a gluten-free diet requires a lot of effort because most foods and snacks are made of wheat.
Besides having gluten-free flours instead of wheat flour, Vyas also avoids eating processed and canned foods as they may have gluten contamination.
Other good alternatives to wheat are quinoa, rice, buckwheat, tapioca, sorghum, corn, millet, amaranth, arrowroot, tef and, oats if they are labelled gluten-free, according to Seema Singh, founder director of Seema Singh’s Nutrition Clinic, New Delhi.
For starches and flours, gluten-free options are available in flours from potato, corn, chickpea, soy, coconut and tapioca; and starch of corn.
Nuts and seeds are also gluten-free, and one could choose from almonds, walnuts, pistachios, cashews, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and flaxseeds, Singh adds.
Vegetables, fruits, and legumes, meat, fish, poultry and eggs are also naturally gluten-free.
When one is not gluten sensitive
While those having celiac disease or gluten intolerance or wheat related disorders benefit from consuming gluten-free diets, an increasing number of people are opting for diets that limit gluten to improve health and weight loss.
Wheat, which is traditionally a major staple in India and across the world, has become not so desirable. Some people claim that omitting wheat from the diet helps to prevent lifestyle ailments, while some others choose gluten-free diets to lose weight.
“Yes, there has been a sudden increase in the number of people opting for a gluten-free diet especially for weight loss,” says Singh. She, however, prescribes gluten-free diet to only those who are gluten intolerant.
Quality of wheat
Dr Bhargava says it is better to stay away from wheat because the quality of wheat has deteriorated over the years due to hybrid varieties, heavy pesticide usage and other factors. The wheat consumed in earlier times was different from what is consumed now, which is why people are excluding wheat from their diet, she says.
However, Dr Rajesh Kesari, a Delhi-based diabetologist, counters this: going by this logic, are all vegetables, grains, and animals also not affected adversely by human intervention and climate change, he asks.
“Wheat is not a culprit here. Cutting wheat from diet is not advisable if one doesn’t have intolerance or sensitivity to gluten,” he says.
Pros and cons of wheat
A study titled the Two Faces of Wheat published in 2020 also pointed out that ancient wheat varieties like einkorn, emmer and spelt were suggested in diet as they provide more health benefits compared to common wheat. But recent reviews collected evidence demonstrating that they differ little in their composition.
According to Dr Kesari, wheat is the main source of carbohydrate, fibre and other important nutrients like certain vitamins and minerals, which are important for a balanced diet. His advice is: if you are not allergic to gluten, you need not blindly follow a fad as it may cause deficiency in these nutrients.
He, however, recommends having whole wheat products instead of refined ones. Whole grains are naturally high in fibre and are healthier than refined products.
The other side of avoiding gluten
A study done is 2017 on the long-term gluten consumption in adults without celiac disease and risk of coronary heart disease found that long term dietary intake of gluten was not associated with the risk of causing coronary heart disease.
In fact, excluding gluten in one’s diet may result in consuming less of of beneficial whole grains, and this may lead to cardiovascular risk, the study noted.
The promotion of gluten-free diets among people without celiac disease should not be encouraged, it said.
Fighting a bad image
In the last 10 years, wheat has received much negative attention because several pseudoscientific books and numerous media reports fuelled the assumption that wheat consumption makes people sick, according to the study Two Faces of Wheat.
A gluten-free diet can lead to some of the most common deficiencies like insufficient amounts of dietary fibre, vitamins, calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc, it said.
There is no reason to eliminate wheat from the diet, except for individuals suffering from wheat related disorders, the study concluded.
Acknowledging the importance of a wholesome food, Bhargava gives her two sons aged 6 and 10, wheat chapatis. “Chapati and bread have been an essential part of our breakfast and I don’t want my kids to lose out on the variety and nutrients associated with them,” she says.