Gluten-free on the rise as large number of Australians blame wheat for stomach troubles

Gut reaction: Neurogastroenterologist Laureate Professor Nick Talley said a large group of people believed their tummy troubles stemmed from eating wheat. Some, not all, could be on to something. Picture: Marina Neil
Gut reaction: Neurogastroenterologist Laureate Professor Nick Talley said a large group of people believed their tummy troubles stemmed from eating wheat. Some, not all, could be on to something. Picture: Marina Neil

ABOUT 14 per cent of the Australian population report a sensitivity to eating wheat.

But going “gluten-free” is not necessarily healthy for everyone, and could even be harmful, University of Newcastle researchers say.

“We have done some survey work, and about 14 per cent of Australians report being sensitive to wheat – getting stomach troubles that they attribute to wheat ingestion,” neurogastroenterologist, Laureate Professor Nicholas Talley, said.

“That is a lot of people. Way more people than have coeliac disease, which is about 1 per cent in the community.

“So there is this large group of people who at least believe their symptoms are from eating wheat, and often restrict wheat or gluten in their diet.”

While there was some new evidence that wheat may be a cause of some people’s symptoms, gluten restriction was not necessarily “healthy”.

Professor Talley, with fellow researchers from the University of Newcastle – Dr Michael Potter, Professor Marjorie Walker and Associate Professor Simon Keely – have published their findings in the international medical journal Gut.

The leading article says that while a lifelong gluten-free diet was central to the management of coeliac disease, there was a growing, wide-spread belief in the general population that a gluten-free diet was “healthier”, contributing to the gluten-free food industry becoming worth an estimated US$6 billion per year.

“Avoiding gluten may not be any healthier than any other option. It could even be harmful,” Professor Talley said. “It definitely changes your gut microbiome, your gut bacteria, and not necessarily in the right direction.”

Professor Talley said about half of the people who complained of symptoms had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or a variant of IBS where they suffered “upper gut symptoms”.

“It is a little bit more complex, but it is basically bad indigestion,” he said.

“About half the people, approximately, who said they were wheat intolerant, had one of those disorders.”

Other lines of evidence suggested an immune response to wheat proteins could be a cause of some symptoms in some people.

“We think that’s important, because in those people, removing or restricting wheat and/or gluten may be helpful,” he said. “If that is true, then we may be able to cure some of these unexplained gut symptoms with diet.

“The other half? We don’t know what they’ve got. One of the issues is whether they really are wheat sensitive, in other words, if you challenge them in a blinded fashion, do they really get symptoms after eating wheat, or is it just misperceived?

“We are doing double blind studies to test that to answer those questions.”

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