Health: DIET OR, NOT!

International star icons like Victoria Beckham credits her silhouette to a gluten-free diet and so do the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Lady Gaga, who have translated being healthy to being ‘gluten-free’. Many celebrities back home and almost everyone aspiring to be fit are contemplating gluten-free diets. With expensive gluten-free products craving for grocery shelf-space, are we in India ready to sacrifice that morning paratha or bread for breakfast? To explore the health-worthiness of such diets, Corporate Citizen spoke to Shwetha Bhatia, a registered dietitian with the Indian Dietetic Association and founder of ‘Mind Your Fitness’ clinics. A competitive fitness athlete and a bodybuilder, she is a board member of the Goa Bodybuilding and Fitness Association, affiliated to the Indian Bodybuilders Federation (IBBF). Kolkata-based Ranadeep Moitra, a Strength and Conditioning Specialist and a ‘Golf Biomechanist’, also shared his views on being gluten-free or not!

For many years, I was on a gluten-free diet. It helped me to reverse the symptoms of an autoimmune disease that I suffer from. I must confess however, that I have become more lenient and perhaps a little lax in recent years,” said Ranadeep Moitra, Strength and Conditioning specialist, Kolkata

And rightly so, most authentic clinical studies regarding gluten-free diets have been conducted on people who have celiac disease or other auto-immune diseases (a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy cells). Therefore, there has been little clinical evidence on the health benefits of a gluten-free diet in the general population.

However, Shwetha Bhatia, Founder of ‘Mind Your Fitness’ clinics (Mumbai, Pune and Goa); also, a registered dietitian and bronze medallist at the 2015 State & National Bodybuilding Championships said, “I personally follow the ketogenic way of life that is devoid of grains and therefore gluten-free automatically becomes a way of life. Here, coconut and almond flour can be moulded in several ways through innovative recipes that easily fill up the wheat void. Currently, I’m working on recipes like breads, desserts, muffins, theplas, crackers, cookies that are keto friendly. The keto diet along with a structured exercise program helps me maintain lean mass and keeps my body fat at 22% or lower, all year long; even at 40 years .”

Gluten Factor

The ‘magical’ gluten is that protein that makes your chapati dough elastic and its absence would definitely make your naan turn crumbly! Most gluten free diet comprises of fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry, fish and seafood, dairy, beans, legumes and nuts. “Alcoholic beverages, including wines and hard liquor/distilled liquors/hard ciders are also gluten-free. However, beers, ales, lagers, malt beverages and malt vinegar that are made from gluten-containing grains are not distilled and therefore are not gluten-free,” adds Shwetha.

“Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, kamut and spelt-genetic modification has made it stronger and more concentrated in the grains we eat. “Traditional” Indian agriculture also involved cultivation of millet, jowar, bajra, amaranth (ram dana). These are naturally gluten-free. Our ancient books mention that these have been cultivated in India since the early Vedic period. Interestingly, the diet prescribed during Ram Navami does not allow wheat but, permits the consumption of ragi, jowar and bajra! Perhaps, our ancestors knew something well before the western world discovered the ills of gluten,” said Ranadeep.

The change from traditional agricultural practices to modern methods has resulted in genetic modification of crops. “This means genes in the seeds for crops like corn, soy and wheat are altered in a laboratory so that the plants can grow larger or resist disease more effectively. The result of altering the plants in this way is that they now contain proteins that are not natural to the plant. Animal and human studies have shown that these proteins are extremely difficult for us to digest and may cause symptoms such as heartburn, reflux, gas and bloating. More dangerously, these proteins can cause autoimmune reactions in the gut that attack our own tissues,” he said.

Shwetha explains the primary differences between wheat allergy, gluten intolerance and celiac disease. “Wheat allergy is a food allergy. An antibody is produced in proteins found in wheat (albumin, globulin, gliadin and gluten). In people with celiac disease, a particular protein in wheat (gluten), triggers an autoimmune reaction.”

“In celiac disease, gluten spurs your immune system to attack the lining of your small intestine. The resulting intestinal damage can cause malnutrition and conditions such as osteoporosis and cancer, in rare cases. Also, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) has recently received a lot of attention. It is a condition that produces symptoms similar to those seen in celiac disease. However, it is not an autoimmune disorder nor, a food allergy and does not have a genetic component. This means that when someone with NCGS eats gluten, it will not cause damage to the small intestine but will still produce common digestive symptoms (intolerance),” she said.

“Wheat is not an indispensable grain and substitutes like jowar, bajra, ragi flour can easily replace it in the Indian diet. Overall, we are consuming more wheat than before but I have also seen improvements in digestive symptoms when this switch has been made on a trial basis. Going gluten free is not harmful”

-Shwetha Bhatia, registered dietitian with the Indian Dietetic Association, Bodybuilder and Founder of ‘Mind Your Fitness’ clinics

Gluten-Free Factor

“A gluten-free diet is the treatment for all the three wheat-related disorders. Someone who may suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other digestive issues may consider going gluten-free for some time to see if symptoms get any better. But, a registered dietitian can plan these diets as they are very restrictive and can cause deficiencies if done incorrectly, besides not providing the desired result”, said Shwetha.

However, she warns that there is no diagnostic test for NCGS which means, “Your gastroenterologist will only diagnose you with NCGS if both celiac disease and wheat allergy have been ruled out. In order to be tested for celiac disease, you must be eating gluten! So, do not initiate a gluten-free diet until you have been tested for both celiac disease and wheat allergy.”

“Many people go through life without realizing that they are gluten intolerant or sensitive (at best). They accept all these symptoms as “normal” which could be anything from migraine to a leaky gut, common allergies or joint pain. Our society is rampant with these issues. I am not saying that all of it is linked to gluten but, many of them are. Actually, a very large percentage is!”, said Ranadeep.

Wh(e)at to Eat?

Shwetha: The incidence of wheat-related disorders

  • Changes in wheat proteins have resulted from wheat breeding. Conventional breeding of modern wheat is carried out to either increase or decrease gluten proteins or modify them in other ways, to increase yield, to change kernel size or shape or to improve insect resistance.
  • GMO-type (genetically engineered) wheat is grown through direct genetic modification of the wheat genome to increase protein content which may cause wheat-related disorders in susceptible people.
  • Current lifestyle patterns have also generally weakened our gut barrier and immunity which is another factor why the rate of sensitivity is increasing.

Ranadeep: Good Gluten : Bad Gluten
  • Too many people connect gluten to weight loss. dietitians have stressed the impact of gluten on weight loss and overweight and poorly fed society has clutched on to the weight-loss tag line.
  • In reality, going off gluten has manifold health benefits that improve quality of life in various ways.
  • In an indirect way, it may cause fat loss as general health and vigour improves.
  • The molecular structure for all gluten is the same and the gut reacts similarly to gluten in different grains.
Follow Your Ancestors:

According to Ranadeep, “Inculcate a gluten-free life from parents. Indians are traditionally rice and chapati eaters. However, millet bajra, jowar and ram dana are used in many rural and semi-rural homes across India as the staple. I would advise more Indian households to embrace these grains and that would also ease the pressure on wheat cultivation to increase outputs. There are no “permissible limits”. Gluten can stay in our guts for six months or so and cause health issues. So, if you are gluten-intolerant, even a small quantity can be harmful to you.”

“Wheat is not an indispensable grain and substitutes like jowar, bajra, ragi flour can easily replace it in the Indian diet. Overall, we are consuming more wheat than before but I have also seen improvements in digestive symptoms when this switch has been made on a trial basis. Going gluten-free is not harmful,” said Shwetha

By Sangeeta Ghosh Dastidar