For the past few weeks I’ve adopted a lifestyle change that should have made me feel like a new woman bynow, if celebrity endorsements are anything to go by.Last summer, Hollywood star Michael Douglas, 70, said he felt ‘great’ and had lost weight since starting on the regimen.Novak Djokovic, the tennis ace, believes it helped propel him to World No 1, and Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckham and Miley Cyrus are all said to be fans.I’m referring to ditching gluten – a protein found primarily in grains such as wheat, barley and rye.Devotees claim going gluten-free can alleviate everything from tiredness and bloating to spotty skin and memory loss.While medical science is yet to substantiate such claims, a YouGov poll this year revealed that 60 per cent of adults have bought a gluten-free product and one household in ten contains someone who believes gluten is bad for them.
No wonder the gluten-free market, currently worth around £210 million, is forecast to grow to £561 million by 2017.Just last week, a study at Aberdeen University, involving 94 people who cut gluten from their diets for three weeks, found it reduced fatigue and boosted energy levels.So could the gluten-free philosophy really be the secret to health, or is it just a myth swallowed by the worried well?
To find out, I eliminated all gluten from my diet for six weeks. If I wanted to eat cakes, biscuits or cereals, they had to be labelled gluten-free or made with corn, rice, soy or other gluten-free grains.To see whether it made any difference, I had a comprehensive blood test at the BMI Alexandra Hospital in Cheadle, Cheshire, before and after the experiment.This included checking my cholesterol levels, liver function, red and white cell count, iron levels and blood sugar.I also did tests devised by Cambridge Brain Sciences, a group of doctors based at the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge. These assessed my short-term or ‘working’ memory.It took some time for me to adjust to the diet. I love bread, pasta and cake, and the gluten-free versions tasted like sawdust.They also proved to be expensive: a 550g loaf of Tesco ‘Free From’ sliced seeded bread was £2, compared with just 50p for a 400g Kingsmill wholemeal loaf.Another surprise was how much wheat is in everyday foods, from milk chocolate to salad dressing (gluten helps to bind the ingredients together). I found myself continually checking ingredients to make sure they didn’t contain the demon product.
And thinking about what to eat took far longer. One morning I realised I’d run out of gluten-free cereal and bread, and ended up having a poached egg on a gluten-free oatcake – grim.Family meals were a challenge, too. My children love a big bowl of creamy pasta but found the gluten-free kind too sloppy (and who could blame them?), so I had to make separate meals.Whenever I put the kettle on, I found myself yearning for my local bakery’s soft lemon cake.Yet after a fortnight I did feel a bit more energetic. I also had a few nights’ unbroken sleep; normally I wake at least once in the night.Apart from that, though, I didn’t feel much different.I’d been hoping my slightly bloated stomach – the legacy of having had four children – might go into retreat, but it didn’t. I also hoped for a memory boost. My memory is hit-and-miss – I can recall tiny details of articles I wrote years ago, but have no idea where I left my car keys.The memory tests – which I took on day one of my new regimen, then six weeks later – were all visual and done on a computer.One was called Monkey Box; boxes containing a number appear in sequence at different points on the screen. Then the numbers vanish and you must remember which one appeared in which box.Before my new diet, I scored seven. Six weeks later my score went up to eight – the only memory test result which improved, or indeed changed at all.For the sake of quality control, I asked my 22-year-old son (a gluten fan with youth on his side) to take the test. He scored nine.I still couldn’t find my car keys.Dr Nick Silver, a consultant neurologist at the Walton Centre for Neurology and Neurosurgery, in Liverpool, is not surprised,’I don’t know of any scientific evidence to suggest a gluten-free diet would improve memory. It could have aplacebo effect, in that if someone feels they are doing something for the better – such as changing their diet-they may feel less tired, in less pain or more alert.’Also, when someone changes their diet, they may introduce other things which improve how they feel. So ifthey have fewer headaches from going dairy-free, for example, they may in fact be drinking less coffee and it’s the lack of caffeine that causes the improvement.’
Sticking to the diet longer than I did could even cause problems, as gluten is useful for most people. Helen Bond explains: ‘Removing it means removing foods such as wheat, which contain fibre.’Fibre helps prevent heart disease, diabetes, weight gain and some cancers, and can also improve digestive health.’In fact, the only people who must follow a gluten-free diet are those with coeliac disease, says Alastair Forbes, a consultant gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at Norwich Medical School.This is a lifelong condition in which the immune system attacks the body’s own tissue in response to gluten, causing symptoms such as diarrhoea, bloating and anaemia. It affects one person in 100.’There are also people who have gastro-intestinal symptoms caused by, say, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS),though the definition of this is muddy,’ adds Professor Forbes.’In this situation, it might be worth stopping gluten for four weeks to see if it has any impact.’But for completely healthy people, though it’s not harmful, there’s no reason to go gluten-free.’