If you've ever followed a gluten-free or grain-free diet, then you'll know that it can quickly become confusing figuring out what the difference is between the two! Here is everything you need to know.
What exactly is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and some other grains such as barley and rye. It is naturally occurring in those foods, but is also often extracted and concentrated to be added to other foods - to add protein, texture and flavour.
It helps to bind together ingredients in processed foods and give them shape. Gluten is what gives bread and baked products a sticky and stretchy consistency, which also explains why gluten-free products often lack this texture.
Gluten is frequently added to foods which would otherwise be naturally gluten-free, due to its functional properties. Unsuspecting foods which often contain added gluten include sauces and condiments, salad dressings, soups, plant-based meat alternatives and nutritional supplements - to name a few!
Understandably, food and drinks which contain added gluten are best avoided by those with a gluten sensitivity, intolerance or allergy.
Coeliac disease vs gluten sensitivity
One of the main reasons for removing gluten from the diet is for those who have a reaction to eating foods which contain gluten. Reactions to gluten range from mild to severe, but if your body does not react well to gluten then it is best to avoid it. We also believe that a gluten & grain free lifestyle is key for optimal health in most of us. You can read more in our Free "Tools to Thrive" Ebook here.
Let's take a look at the difference between coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity.
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition where the body attacks its own tissues when gluten is eaten. It is a serious, long-term condition in which eating gluten can really damage the gut (small intestine) and also cause nutrient malabsorption. This is therefore different to a food allergy or insensitivity.
It is estimated that coeliac disease affects at least 1 in 100 people in the UK. However, many experts believe the true incidence is much higher - as symptoms are often undiagnosed to misdiagnosed as another condition, such as IBS or IBD.
With coeliac disease, eating gluten may cause symptoms such as bloating, cramps, fatigue, vomiting and weight loss - which can last several days.
As this response happens when food containing gluten is eaten, coeliac disease is usually treated by following a gluten-free diet. It can also take a few years for the gut to repair if someone has been eating gluten, not knowing that they have coeliac disease.
Gluten sensitivity & intolerance
Some people who do not have coeliac disease may still experience adverse reactions to gluten. This non-coeliac reaction to gluten is known as gluten sensitivity or intolerance - depending on how bad the reaction to gluten is.
People who are sensitive or intolerant to gluten may experience symptoms which are less debilitating than those with coeliac disease, but are nevertheless unpleasant - such as bloating, wind, constipation or diarrhoea, when gluten is eaten.
If a reaction to gluten is suspected then a person will usually be tested to rule out coeliac disease first, before being diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity or more serious gluten intolerance and given advice for its management.
Gluten-free, grain-free & wheat-free
Now that we know all about gluten and why some people follow gluten-free diets - how does gluten-free compare with grain-free or wheat-free? Do they mean the same things, just with different names?
Well, the terms gluten-free, grain-free and wheat-free are often used interchangeably - but that is despite the fact that they aren't the same thing at all.
Not only is this confusing but it is also misleading - and potentially dangerous for those with adverse reactions to gluten or certain grains such as wheat.
Let's take a look at what each of the key terms actually means.
- Gluten is a protein found in many grains, including wheat
- Wheat is a grain which contains gluten
- Grain is the name given to any food which is made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or any other cereal grain - some contain gluten and others don't
In other words, a gluten-free diet will be free from wheat and other grains which contain gluten. However, a wheat-free diet may not necessarily be free from gluten - as some foods which don't contain wheat do contain gluten!
Considering this, it doesn't take much to get confused - or overwhelmed if you need to follow a diet which is free from any of these.
However, removing all grains from the diet is the simplest and most effective way to steer clear of wheat and gluten, as a grain-free diet will be free from all grains - and so wheat and gluten too.
What's more, there are plenty of reasons to avoid grains, even if you are not intolerant or allergic to what they contain.
Why would I follow a grain-free diet if I am not allergic or intolerant to gluten?
The popularity of grain-free and gluten-free diets has soared in recent years. This is not just in line with the increasing incidence of coeliac disease and gluten intolerance, but also for those who can eat gluten without consequence - but choose not to.
There are a number of reasons why this may be - but most will refer to the increasing body of scientific evidence which suggests that eating grains is directly related to the sharp rise in a number of modern health problems. This is particularly the case for those which contain gluten.
Research has shown a number of findings about grains and how they are more harmful than healthful for most people. Some of the key findings include:
- Grains contain toxic anti-nutrients
Such as lectins, phytates and of course gluten - these are designed to protect the crop from bacterial infections and being eaten by insects, but when consumed by humans interfere with nutrient absorption.
This is so much so that eating grains which contain these non-nutrients may negate the benefits of the healthy nutrients grains contain.
In other words, grains may sound nutritious down on paper - with a high content of some essential nutrients - however, the anti-nutrients they also contain affect their absorption, as well as the absorption of nutrients from other foods in the diet.
- Humans have not evolved to digest gluten
Humans evolved on a diet of meat, fish, nuts, seasonal vegetables, tubers & roots, fruit and berries.
They may have eaten the scarce wild grains available on occasion, but this was rare and these would certainly not have been a staple food providing the main source of energy - as grains do today.
As such, our digestive systems have not evolved to effectively digest grains. This is thought to be the underlying reason why so many people are intolerant to gluten, and can be compared to lactose intolerance - an inability to digest the sugars found in milk.
- Gluten sensitivity is prominent
It is estimated that the prevalence of undiagnosed coeliac disease is around 1%, which is the same prevalence of those who have been diagnosed - effectively doubling the incidence.
In addition to this, experts believe that around a third of us have some form of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. This is a testament to the argument that humans have not evolved to effectively digest gluten.
For those who do not have a severe reaction to gluten, gluten insensitivities can induce less severe inflammatory responses in the body which can contribute to many health conditions in the long term.
- We can live without grains
Many people argue that we need grains, particularly whole grains, as they are a good source of energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals - but there is an abundance of grain-free, non-processed food alternatives which are far more nutritionally dense.
Foods such as meat, fish, vegetables and fruit provide a spectrum of nutrients including essential vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, antioxidants and protein.
Not only are these optimally bioavailable, but they are also free from the harmful anti-nutrients which hinder nutrition absorption from grains.
Furthermore, they are the foods our bodies have evolved to thrive on - not have an adverse reaction to!
- Processed grain products are a problem
If you think about the grains we eat and compare them with other foods, they are arguably the most heavily processed food group aside from junk foods.
Meat, fish and vegetables may not usually be eaten raw, but they are mostly raw or minimally processed when purchased - before being cooked and eaten.
In contrast, grains on supermarket shelves have almost always undergone heavy processing to make them edible by humans, with raw grains being impossible to consume and digest unless they are soaked or sprouted first.
In other words, grains are heavily processed, stripping them of their beneficial nutrients and adding harmful ingredients such as seed oils and sugars in their place.
Just like all processed and junk foods, grains should be eaten sparingly - even better, avoided altogether for optimal health.
- Grains contribute to excess carbohydrate and energy intake
Last but not least, consuming grains often - or as a staple part of the daily diet as with most people - is worsening the global epidemic of obesity and metabolic syndrome.
In particular, carbohydrate intake from grains is associated with impaired glucose metabolism and the associated Type 2 Diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Even for those who are not following a Low Carb or Keto diet, there are far safer, more natural, less processed and gluten-free alternative sources of carbohydrates to replace grains with.
Going grain-free for optimal health
With access to meat, fish, dairy (if you eat it), fruit and vegetables - there is simply no necessity for grains in the modern diet.
Conventional wisdom and governmental guidance may dictate that grains are a staple food which should provide the majority of calories for energy intake.
However, as with most population-level advice this is heavily influenced by the food industry and the need to feed an ever-growing population with minimal resources - rather than being influenced by the pursuit of optimal health.
The argument to reduce intake of grains is only strengthened when you consider that humans have not evolved to digest grains - and so eating them could damage the gut and overall health, even for undiagnosed and asymptomatic individuals.
All information provided on our website and within our articles is simply information, opinion, anecdotal thoughts and experiences to provide you with the tools to thrive.
It is not intended to treat or diagnose symptoms and is definitely not intended to be misconstrued for medical advice. We always advise you seek the advice of a trained professional when implementing any changes to your lifestyle and dietary habits.
We do however recommend seeking the services of a trained professional who questions the conventional wisdom to enable you to become the best version of yourself.