Today’s widespread ability to share and spread information is a double-edged sword when it comes to nutritional trends.
Although staying aware of food-related disorders can help us identify ailments and remain healthy, simply following diets based on the latest fad (instead of fact) can keep us from getting the nutrition we need.
Before we jump headfirst onto the “gluten-free” and “lactose-free” bandwagons, let’s first understand what each of these nutrients mean for our health, and whether we really need to avoid them.
Understanding Gluten & its Intolerance
Gluten is a protein that’s found in wheat, rye, barley and oats.1
If you aren’t gluten sensitive, it’s important to keep eating gluten-containing foods because of all the health benefits that come with them.
These foods contribute towards a large amount of the protein and folic acid that we need, but, as Indians, are deficient in already.2They’re also great sources of other B-vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that should ideally feature in our daily food intake. In fact, several studies have shown that gluten-free foods tend to have less protein and micronutrients as compared to conventional diets.1
That said, gluten-intolerance is a real problem for some people, too.
There are three conditions that call for a gluten-free diet. They are –
1] Celiac Disease:
Here, a person’s small intestine is sensitive to gluten, which activates the immune system and causes inflammation, restricting the absorption of nutrients by the body.
A large segment of the Indian population is genetically predisposed to suffering from celiac disease.3, 4 Earlier thought to only occur in children, celiac disease has now been discovered to affect adults of all ages as well, with the condition being on the rise in India.5
That said, there’s also a lot of ambiguity surrounding these numbers, because the studies conducted so far have been too small-scale with too much variability, which could very well render this data unreliable.
2] Non-celiac Disease Gluten-Intolerance:
The small intestine gets affected even in this condition, leading to digestive issues. However, this sensitivity could be a result of a single syndrome or even a range of conditions – we just don’t know enough yet to even identify gluten as the main culprit, since researchers suspect that other components in wheat may also cause this intolerance.
3] An Allergy to Wheat followed by Physical Exercise:
Technically called wheat-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis, this allergic response is triggered by one physically exercising after the ingestion of wheat (or even seafood) based foods.
Any one of these conditions would lead to a feeling of discomfort after eating grain-based foods. If you experience symptoms of being gluten-intolerant, specifically digestive issues like bloating, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, fatigue etc., you could try going on a gluten/wheat free diet for a while. If you do feel better, the best thing to do is see a doctor to get a final diagnosis.
Then, and only then, does it become important to avoid gluten in your diet.
Understanding Lactose and its Intolerance
Unlike the ambiguity with gluten-sensitivity, lactose-intolerance is an unequivocally enormous issue in India. Recent studies estimate that up to 70% of South Indians and 30% of North Indians are intolerant to lactose (the lower incidence in the latter perhaps being due to the fact that they are descendants of the lactose-tolerant Aryans).4, 6
Lactose, a sugar found in milk and milk products, needs to be broken down into simple sugars in our body with the help of a substance called lactase. Lactose-intolerant people don’t produce enough lactase (either temporarily or permanently), which limits the amount of dairy they can digest.
The undigested lactose goes on to create issues such as bloating, flatulence, diarrhoea and cramps. These digestive problems are also symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), as a result of which lactose-intolerance is often misdiagnosed as IBS.
Interestingly, many lactose-intolerant individuals can handle yogurt, even though it has lactose. This is because the bacteria that ferments the milk into yogurt produces lactase, which acts on the ingested lactose, relieving some of the digestive discomfort.7, 8 Owing to this, probiotic supplements (those containing “good” bacteria), are being considered as a way to manage lactose-intolerance.8
As you can see, the “lactose-free” diet trend would be an example of the other, more helpful edge of the proverbial sword that we’d mentioned right in the beginning. But lactose (as with gluten) should only be steered clear of by those who are certain about being lactose-intolerant. Those who experience any of the symptoms should definitely consult with their doctors.
For those who don’t, cutting it out of your diet would mean missing out on a good source of calcium, vitamin B12, potassium, magnesium and protein. In fact, whey protein (which is taken from dairy) is one of the best quality proteins available, especially for vegetarians. It is also very satiating, and can help with building lean muscle and losing fat.
Both lactose-free and gluten-free diets can make a world of a difference to those who follow them, but only if they are sensitive to either nutrient. So before following these trends and making them a permanent aspect of your lifestyle, it’s important be completely sure about the way your body reacts to gluten and lactose – regardless of what the world is saying.
1. Shewry PR, Hey SJ. Nutrition Bulletin / Bnf 2016, 41(1): 6-13.
2. Martens EA, Westerterp-Plantenga MS. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care 2014, 17(1): 75-79.
3. Ramakrishna BS. The Indian Journal of Medical Research 2011, 133(1): 5-8.
4. Tandon RK, et al. The American journal of clinical nutrition 1981, 34(5): 943-946.
5. Sood A, et al. Am J Gastroenterol 2001, 96(9): 2804-2805.
6. de Vrese M, et al. The American journal of clinical nutrition 2001, 73(2): 421s-429s.
7. Tuohy KM, et al. Drug discovery today 2003, 8(15): 692-700.
8. Trenev N. Probiotics: Nature’s Internal Healers. Avery Publishing Group, 1998.