We all know someone with a food allergy. Gluten, dairy, nuts, eggs and shellfish are just a few of the common intolerances that can cause people to become ill or put their lives at risk. Yet gluten and lactose are two of the most prominent intolerances with people all over the world seemingly self-diagnosing themselves with allergies or intolerances. Many now point the blame at the aforementioned for a range of problems and issues, such as skin disorders, bloating, digestion problems and headaches. And as a result, the idea of living a gluten-free or dairy-free lifestyle has been hailed as one of the best ways to improve diet and bodily function.
In order to keep up with demand, supermarkets have been under pressure for many years to cater to those suffering from such allergies. And now, more than ever, supermarkets are branching out in order to ensure those who find themselves unable to digest such foods can still eat all the foods they love, just made without the body-irritating ingredients. As a result, celebrities and foodies all over the world have hailed these ‘free from’ diets as the reason for their unrivalled health, youthful looks and incredible figures. But in reality, is this the case?
First let’s look at gluten
Gluten is made from proteins called gliadin and glutenin. When combined, they create a glue-like bond that gives baked goods, such as bread and cake flexibility, volume and texture. Found in wheat, barley and rye, it is hard to avoid in daily life. The common belief nowadays is that the proteins in gluten cause both irritation and inflammation which leads to bloating and other digestive problems as well as potentially a general sensitivity to other foods.
Often seen as the enemy – not just by celiacs – some research has suggested that the inflammation is linked to a whole host of health problems, such as headaches, weight gain, type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome and even infertility. However none of the above have been proven in the mainstream population.
For those living with coeliac disease, gluten causes the finger-like villi in the intestines to weaken or flatten. This greatly reduces the surface area available for nutrient absorption, which means they may experience a nutrient deficiency which can present in a number of ways, including diarrhoea, dry skin, depression and discomfort. However for those who don’t have a sensitivity to gluten, these are unfounded.
And the same can be said for dairy-free diets
There is a growing number of people who are allergic to cows’ milk, however there is also an increasing number of people who find themselves lactose intolerant. Lactose is essentially milk sugar, and intolerance results from the inability to digest lactose in the small intestine. Found in a plethora of foods made from milk, including yoghurt, ice cream, soft cheeses and butter, it can also be found in breads, soups, dips and seasoning – as well as a range of other foods.
Lactose is digested in the small intestine by an enzyme called lactase. This enzyme allows the body to break down the lactose into two sugars, called glucose and galactose. These are then absorbed by the intestine and provide energy for the body. The level of the lactase enzyme is different, individual to individual, and as a result, the severity of symptoms caused by lactose intolerance differs between everyone. Some suffer severe symptoms after consuming small amounts of lactose, whereas others can tolerate small amounts, such as a small quantity of milk or cheese. The symptoms of lactose intolerance range from mild abdominal discomfort, bloating and excessive flatulence, to painful abdominal cramps and diarrhoea.
Most people develop lactose intolerance as opposed to being born with it, with some more prone than others. Asian, Middle Eastern, Southern European, African or Australian Aboriginal groups are more likely to develop it for example than people of European descent. Lactose intolerance can also occur after an instance of gastroenteritis, however it is usually temporary and will correct itself after a couple of weeks. For those who experience no effects of lactose or dairy, abstaining form foods containing milk will generally not bring any benefit – despite may believing it will.
One thing that's fuelling this misunderstanding is the fact that adopting a gluten-free or lactose-free diet can have noticeable health benefits. However this is rarely down to the lack of such foods, and more due to making healthier choices in general. Adopting a diet that cuts out any type of food causes you to look at your diet more closely and means you are more aware of the food you are eating. So instead of having a cheese and pickle sandwich which contains 405 kcal, 17.4 grams of fat, 8.8 grams of saturates, 6.7 grams of sugar and 1.8 grams of salt, not to mention added carbohydrates, you may instead opt for a chicken salad - minus dressing – which boasts less carbohydrates, more protein and around a quarter of the calories, half the fat, an eighth of the saturates, a third of the sugar and half of the amount of salt. However on the flip side, people wrongly assume that ‘free from’ food is the ‘healthy’ option. Gluten-free biscuits, dairy-free ice cream and cheese are prime examples. These often contain the same amount of calories, fat and carbohydrates as their counterparts, yet are often consumed in higher quantities due to them being wrongly labelled as ‘healthy’. This, over time, can result in some serious health conditions such as weight gain, diabetes, and heart problems due to the increased levels of fat.
The only way to ensure you are eating a healthy diet is to eat all foods in moderation and follow advice from health professionals. And those who do suffer from food intolerances, be wary of the ‘free from’ labels and make sure you check nutrition content before delving in for seconds.
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