It is now estimated that at least 10 per cent of UK consumers are following a gluten free diet, despite only one per cent of the population being celiac.
A Sheffield University study from 2016 surveyed over 10,000 people in 2012, at which point 13 per cent were following a gluten free diet. A similar survey in 2015 revealed this had gone up to 33 per cent.
“Free from” aisles are a regular fixture of supermarkets today. The market for gluten free food is still growing and currently worth an estimated £835 million.
McGowan and Ryan worry that people are opting to restrict their diet, instead of adjusting amounts or exploring better quality gluten – high GI sliced white bread is Britain’s most-eaten bread, with £876 million worth of loaves sold last year.
“For most other people if you eat a big bowl of pasta, you might feel a bit bloated but that’s normal enough. It does not mean you have to cut it out completely, but you should eat a smaller amount if you want to feel comfortable,” says Ryan.
They also question how much better for the gut gluten free products are. A 2018 study by the University of Hertfordshire surveyed more than 1,700 products from five UK supermarket chains and found that gluten-free foods have more fat, salt and sugar than their gluten-including counterparts.
“People go down a strict road of ‘food rules’ where certain foods become the enemy, but there are no such rules. There isn’t one food that’s ‘bad’,” says Ryan.
Much maligned wheat, she asserts, actually feeds your good gut bacteria, helps your bowels move regularly and is very good for overall health.
Concerned by the amount of confusion they’ve seen in people who are trying to be healthy, they’ve written a book to share some of their knowledge.
What Every Woman Needs to Know About Her Gut is specifically aimed at women – IBS is three times more common in women than men – however much of their advice is applicable to men too.
They wonder what problems the restrictive diets they are seeing people follow are storing up for the future. One woman they helped in her late 30s had done an at-home food intolerance test in her 20s and had stopped eating dairy as a result. She went on to have three babies and then at the age of 38 was diagnosed with osteoporosis.
McGowan says all such diet restrictions should be made after consultations with a registered dietician. “Dairy protein allergy is extremely rare, affecting less than one per cent of the population. Lactose intolerance affects a small percentage. We can all still tolerate cheese, a certain amount of yogurt and milk.”
Their FLAT gut diet plan is all about finding your own tolerance levels of common triggers.
- F is for the Fs; fibre, fructans (wheat based foods like pasta, breads and cereals) and fructose (fruit sugar).
- L is for lactose, milk sugars.
- A is for alliums, onions and garlic, which have particular potency for gut sufferers because they have a sugar chain similar to bread and pasta.
- T is the mind and body connection. “Mental health is really important and stress plays a huge role. We all know that what’s going on in our head has a huge effect on what’s going on in our gut. Seventy per cent of serotonin is produced by gut bacteria. So what you eat has a huge effect on your mental health.”
Together they have a combined 50 years of experience working in gut health. “We’re not whippersnappers,” says Ryan, which is why they think they’re well placed to counter some of the spurious advice available on social media platforms.
When McGowan started her clinical dietitian career she would be constantly explaining how home-cooked favourites like cabbage were causing excess wind. Then she moved into the era of the takeaway, where clients would be troubled by the triggering garlic and onions that formed the base of dishes. Today she’s trying to educate healthy eaters who might be overdoing it on fermented foods and fibre.
“Our colleagues in the field are also seeing patients day in and out who are really confused by all the noise out there,” says McGowan. “There are a lot of conflicting dietary messages and poor quality information. We’re trying to help people navigate them as best we can.”
What Every Woman Needs to Know About Her Gut: The FLAT GUT Diet plan by Professor Barbara Ryan, MD and Elaine McGowan, RD (Sheldon Press). Buy now for £16.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514