Going wheat-free is the latest health craze, but is it really necessary? We discuss the pros and cons.

A wheat-free diet no longer seems to be reserved only for those with a diagnosed wheat allergy or intolerance. Many people are adopting it as a “fad diet”, hoping to drop a few kilos or to detox, or because they believe they’re intolerant to this staple food.

Even celebrities are going wheat-free, giving consumers around the world more reason to adopt a diet devoid of bread, pasta and other wheat-containing foods.

Are you wondering if a wheat-free diet is for you? Lauren Du Toit Bartholomew, a registered dietician from Cape Town, South Africa, gives us the lowdown on the health benefits and drawbacks.

Pros of a wheat-free diet

1. Stabilising blood glucose levels
Wheat is a big contributor to glucose in the body. So, eliminating wheat from your diet may allow you to have better control over your blood glucose levels. This is especially helpful for diabetics who need to constantly monitor their blood glucose and insulin levels. Lower blood glucose levels can also help prevent other health conditions such as gluten intolerance and even obesity.

2. Improved digestion:
Wheat can be difficult to digest. Consuming too much of this carbohydrate food makes the intestines work harder and can sometimes lead to blockages or sluggish digestion. This may result in digestive problems such as water retention, bloating and gas. Eating less wheat can ease digestive discomfort by giving your digestive system a break.

3. Possible weight loss:
Following a wheat-free diet may help you to lose weight and avoid weight gain in the future. If you eliminate wheat from your diet, you’ll also eliminate many carbohydrate-rich processed foods, such as white bread, pizza, crackers, burgers, cookies, rusks and pasta.

Refined carbohydrates such as these can wreak havoc on your blood glucose levels. These foods also don’t keep you full and satisfied. Both factors could mean that you crave sugary foods later in the day, and that you end up ingesting too many kilojoules, leading to weight gain.

However, dietitians don’t advise following a wheat-free weight-loss diet unless it’s medically necessary. If wheat is eliminated from the diet for weight-loss purposes for a short period of time and then reintroduced later, the weight might just all come back again.

4. Decreased risk of coeliac disease
Eating wheat puts you at risk for developing coeliac disease, an autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten (a protein component in wheat) leads to damage to the small intestine.

Not sure if you’re at risk for coeliac disease? Try going wheat-free for a while. If you feel better without wheat in your diet, it could be a sign that you have wheat intolerance. You might then want to consider going wheat-free with the help of a registered dietitian to prevent further health problems, which may eventually include coeliac disease.

Cons of a wheat-free diet

1. An increased risk for chronic constipation
Minimally processed foods that contain wheat are usually a source of fibre, which ensures that the digestive system functions optimally. Eliminating fibre-rich wheat from your diet (e.g. brown bread, whole-wheat pasta and high-fibre breakfast cereal) may lead to chronic constipation. If you’re following a wheat-free diet, make sure you’re including enough fibre from other sources in your diet. This includes fresh fruit, vegetables and legumes.

2. Vitamin B deficiency
If you’re following a wheat-free diet, you also risk a vitamin B deficiency. Vitamin B is needed to create energy from food, and to make and repair cells and tissue. Without this essential nutrient, your body is unable to function at its best and you may become seriously ill. Are you on a wheat-free diet? Ensure you’re getting enough of the B vitamins you need by eating dairy, lean cuts of meat and dark-green, leafy vegetables.

3. Possible weight gain
Removing wheat from your diet may also cause weight gain if you’re not careful. While wheat and gluten-free products may sound healthy, these foods often contain higher levels of fat and sugar, making them higher in kilojoules than their standard counterparts. Also, once your body gets used to your new way of eating, your gastrointestinal tract will recover and renew itself and begin to absorb more nutrients. This isn’t a bad thing, but it may cause weight gain.

A few more hassles
Apart from the health pros and cons, going wheat-free could have other implications. Bear the following in mind if you’re thinking of changing your diet:

It’s time-consuming
Following a wheat-free diet can be tedious and time-consuming. Not only is it often a struggle to find wheat-free food items, but it can also be hard work to prepare a wheat-free meal. While everybody else eats regular bread, pizza or pasta, you may have to prepare a separate wheat-free meal.

It’s limiting, difficult to keep up, and costly
A wheat-free diet entails eliminating all food products that contain wheat and, yes, wheat is in a lot more products than you probably realise (even commercial salad dressings may contain wheat).

It’s important to understand that it’s not easy to follow a wheat-free diet and that it can become very restrictive in terms of food choices. If you’re not doing it for the correct reasons, it can become quite a hassle.

What’s more, wheat-free eating can also be expensive, as you’ll have to shop for speciality foods such as wheat-free pasta and wheat-free bread.

Wheat-free diet tips
Still thinking of cutting out wheat? Lauren shares a few useful tips for a wheat-free diet:

- Read food labels carefully. Wheat and its by-products are hidden everywhere. Making educated choices in the supermarket means not rushing your grocery shopping and always reading food labels. Often there aren’t any warnings that a product contains wheat or its by-products. Some terms to look out for other than “wheat” include the following:

    • Triticale

    • Durum

    • Semolinabalance-of-nutrients

    • Bulgar

    • Couscous

    • Wheat bran

    • Wheat germ

    • Emmer

    • Wheat flours

    • Malt

    • Farina

    • Hydrolysed vegetable protein

    • Modified starches

Note: If something is labelled “gluten-free”, it’s automatically wheat-free as well. If it’s labelled “wheat- free”, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gluten free. Remember this when doing shopping and reading labels.

- Avoid all commercial foods and products, especially if you have a true allergy. It’s best to make your own salad dressings and sauces. Food items like mayonnaise, tomato and soya sauce may all contain wheat or its by-products. The same goes for spices such as curry powders and gravy extracts.

- Always cook from scratch, stick to fresh produce and avoid all deli food and processed meats. This is the best way to ensure you aren’t consuming wheat or any of its by-products.


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