Health Threats

Why gluten-free food is not the healthy option you thought it is

People with coeliac disease need to avoid gluten, but a gluten-free diet is otherwise best avoided. It raises the risk of type 2 diabetes.

It’s hard not to notice that the range of gluten-free foods available in supermarkets has increased massively in recent years. This is partly because the rise in the number of people diagnosed with coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity, and partly because celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Miley Cyrus and Victoria Beckham have praised gluten-free diets. What used to be prescription-only food is now a global health fad. But for how much longer? New research from Harvard University has found a link between gluten-free diets and an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Gluten is a protein found in cereals such as wheat, rye and barley. It is particularly useful in food production. For example, it gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and keep its shape, and providing a chewy texture. Many types of foods contain gluten, including less obvious ones such as salad dressing, soup and beer.

The same protein that is so useful in food production is a nightmare for people with coeliac disease. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body mistakenly reacts to gluten as if it were a threat to the body. The condition is quite common, affecting one in 100 people, but only a quarter of those who have the disease have been diagnosed.

There is evidence that the popularity of gluten-free diets has surged, even though the incidence of coeliac disease has remained stable. This is potentially due to increasing numbers of people with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. In these cases, people exhibit some of the symptoms of coelaic disease but without having an immune response. In either case, avoiding gluten in foods is the only reliable way to control symptoms, which may include diarrhoea, abdominal pain and bloating.

Without any evidence for beneficial effects, many people without coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity are now turning to gluten-free diets as a “healthy” alternative to a normal diet. Supermarkets have reacted to meet this need by stocking ever growing “free from” ranges. The findings of this recent study, however, suggest that there could be a significant drawback to adopting a gluten-free diet that was not previously known.

Inverse association

What the Harvard group behind this study have reported is that there is an inverse association between gluten intake and type 2 diabetes risk. This means that the less gluten found in a diet the higher the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The data for this exciting finding comes from three separate, large studies which collectively included almost 200,000 people. Of those 200,000 people, 15,947 cases of type 2 diabetes were confirmed during the follow-up period. Analysis showed that those who had the highest intake of gluten had an 80% lower chance of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those who had the lowest levels of gluten intake.

This study has important implications for those who either have to avoid or choose to avoid gluten in their diet. Type 2 diabetes is a serious condition that affects more than 400m people worldwide – a number which is certain to increase for many years to come.

Collectively, diabetes is responsible for around 10% of the entire NHS budget and drugs to treat diabetes alone cost almost £1 billion annually. There is no cure for type 2 diabetes and remission is extremely rare. This means that once diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, it is almost impossible to revert back to being healthy.

It is important to note that the data for this study was retrospectively gathered. This allows for very large numbers to be included but relies on food-frequency questionnaires collected every two to four years and the honesty of those recruited to the study. This type of study design is rarely as good as a prospective study where you follow groups of people randomly assigned to either have low- or high-gluten diets over many years. However, prospective studies are expensive to run and it’s difficult to find enough people willing to take part in them.

While there is some evidence for a link between coeliac disease and type 1 diabetes, this is the first study to show a link between gluten consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes. This is an important finding. For those who choose a gluten-free diet because they believe it to be healthy, it may be time to reconsider your food choices.

James Brown, Lecturer in Biology and Biomedical Science, Aston University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.