Why You Might Want To Rethink Free-From Foods

Photographed by Flora Maclean.
If you're someone who turns their nose up at the bread served in restaurants and have stopped consuming dairy because it might make you bloated, you might need to have a rethink.
Recent research has shown that people who avoid dairy and gluten, despite not being diagnosed with an allergy or an intolerance, are risking their health in the long and short term.
Osteoporosis in later life is a real risk for the one-fifth of young people who avoid or completely cut dairy out of their diet, the National Osteoporosis Society warned recently. This risk may also be completely unnecessary, as the same study suggested that nearly a quarter of those who avoid dairy are not cutting it out due to medical advice. Dairy is a rich source of calcium and vitamin D, which are needed for bone health, and if these aren’t obtained from other sources, bone density can fall.
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“Diet in early adulthood is so important because by the time we get into our late 20s it is too late to reverse the damage caused by poor diet and nutrient deficiencies and the opportunity to build strong bones has passed,” warned Professor Susan Lanham-New, head of nutritional sciences at the University of Surrey.
Essentially, those who restrict their diet without proper clinical supervision are risking ending up with an unbalanced diet, explains Linia Patel, a registered dietitian and British Dietetic Association spokesperson.
“The biggest risk if you exclude a whole food group is that you end up with an unbalanced diet. Eventually you end up with deficiencies, such as calcium if you avoid dairy or B vitamins if you avoid grains,” she says.
“I have lots of patients who have decided to exclude a food group on their own, and then come to me. Dairy and gluten are the big two, but sometimes people have completely excluded carbohydrates as well.
“I work in a sports clinic and I see people who end up with stress fractures. I want to say ‘I told you so’ – of course I don’t, but this is the situation you end up in where somewhere along the line you decided to exclude a food group and eventually it caught up with you,” Linia warns.

Gluten-free warning

If long-term health risks aren’t enough to put you off restricting your diet without medical advice, then how about the risk of obesity?
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Gluten-free food availability has soared in recent years, which means that people who really need it, such as people with coeliac disease who have to avoid gluten completely, can get it a lot more easily. And so can everyone else.
Unfortunately, this may mean that people are putting themselves at greater risk of obesity by selecting these foods over their normal counterparts. A recent study showed that gluten-free versions of food were often much higher in calories, fat and sugar. This increased sugar content could lead to obesity, and the myriad problems that come with it.
So why are people so convinced that gluten- and dairy-free is a healthier way of eating?

Is social media to blame?

The National Osteoporosis Society found that not only were young people more likely to cut out dairy, they were also more likely to prefer so-called "clean" eating regimes, which encourage the exclusion of various food groups. It also found that they were more likely to consult social media and bloggers for nutritional information than older people.
Still, it would be presumptuous to suggest that's the only reason people are cutting out food groups, says Linia.
“I think there are a number of factors but I think it is because we are more faddy, and it is just a thing to do as everyone has an intolerance now.
“There are more readily available free-from foods out there and people may assume that they are healthier and that is not a correct assumption.”
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A lack of medical testing and advice can also be to blame. “There is no way to measure an intolerance in the same way that you can measure an allergy, which means that lots of people are just getting anecdotal evidence. They say, ‘I feel sluggish’, ‘I feel bloated’, and ‘It must be the wheat’ or ‘It must be the dairy’,” she explains.
Linia also cites the rise of vegetarianism and veganism as another factor in this trend – after all, how many people have you heard shunning the dairy industry after watching Simon Amstell’s Carnage recently?

What should I eat?

There is one final factor in all of this that people rarely confess to: confusion. Food intolerances have risen rapidly over the past decade but our education, and that of medical professionals, hasn’t kept pace.
If you think you have an allergy or intolerance, then of course you should seek medical advice – not only for a diagnosis, but also for advice on how you can avoid nutrient deficiencies.
And if you don’t have anything wrong with you? Lucky you, you can eat whatever you like. Just make sure you question any faddy diet advice you get in future.
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