Thinking of cutting a food group? Read this first

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Victoria Ling

#nocarb #glutenfree #wheatfree #nodairy #ditchsugar. The hashtags are everywhere, but what does cutting out these foods really do to your health? Hannah Ebelthite reports

These days, it's hard to be sure what a healthy diet means. All the food chat coming from social media seems to start with 'no' or end in 'free'. And forget having friends over for dinner - you'd have to cater for so many different dietary needs, it would be easier to just throw a party in Whole Foods.

Whether you want a slimmer waist, flatter abs, clearer skin, a calmer gut or more energy, the message seems to be that cutting out foods containing gluten, wheat, dairy or sugar - or banning carbs altogether - is the way to go. But is slashing a whole food type -sometimes a whole food group - ever a good idea?

"If it's medically necessary," says Helen Bond, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. "But if it's not, then you're veering into faddy eating. The food groups - starchy carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables, protein, dairy and unsaturated fats - each contain macro and micro nutrients essential to health. They exist for a reason."

So before you join a free-from diet plan, read our expert guide - and proceed with caution.

What happens when…you cut gluten?

Why would I do that? According to the Food Standards Agency, the gluten-free industry is worth over £238 million and one in five of us regularly buys gluten-free. Yet only one in 100 has a true allergy to gluten (coeliac disease). Some people do have an intolerance to gluten or wheat, and both can be a trigger in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), "but it's also become a fashionable choice," says registered dietitian Juliette Kellow. "Trends like clean eating, raw food and paleo diets often avoid foods that contain wheat or gluten, and plenty of celebrities claim cutting it keeps them slim."

Think twice: "Bread is an affordable, convenient source of fibre, vitamins and minerals if you choose wholegrain," says Kellow. And the alternatives like gluten-free can be pricey and less healthy. "Manufacturers often add extra fat and/or sugar if they remove gluten. So unless you have a diagnosed allergy or intolerance, it's not healthier."

Many people also think starchy carbs (bread, pasta) make them bloated. "Yet The British Nutrition Foundation has done extensive research and found no link between bread and bloating," says Bond. So it's less likely to be what you're eating and more likely to be how much. Toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, pasta for dinner…

Focus on: Coeliac disease

by Norma McGough, dietitian at Coeliac UK

"For coeliacs, eating gluten triggers an immune reaction that damages the gut lining, reducing its ability to absorb nutrients. Symptoms include bloating, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and weight loss. Sound like you? See your GP for tests (don't cut out gluten first; it can give a false negative)."

What happens when…you cut carbs?

Why would I do that? Ever since your mum first did Atkins, people on a weight-loss mission have believed carbs are the enemy. "It's easy to eat too many carbs, so if you cut down, you're automatically slashing your calories," says nutritionist Ian Marber.

Think twice: Carbs are brain food. "They provide the glucose our brains need to function," says Bond. Ever felt 'hangry' or the brain fog descend at work when you haven't eaten? That's why. "They're also essential for performance and recovery in exercise." But before you reach for that croissant, remember not all carbs are equal. "Simple, refined carbohydrates like white bread, white pasta and white rice aren't big on nutrients and won't fill you up for long," she says. "Plus, lots of processed carbohydrate products come laden with fat, salt and sugar."

Instead of ditching, switch to wholegrain, unrefined 'brown' versions to fuel your brain, stay full and get enough fibre and other essential heart-healthy nutrients. The key? "Watch portion size: it should be around the size of a tennis ball," says Bond. "And vary your grains if you have indigestion or bloating. Try rice, couscous, barley, bulgur wheat, buckwheat, quinoa, spelt or polenta. A new source of carbs might not cause the same symptoms."

What happens when…you quit dairy?

Why would I do that? "Dairy goes through phases of being demonised," says consultant nutritionist Azmina Govindji. "Some believe they're lactose intolerant, allergic to cow's milk protein or find it's a trigger for their IBS. Others have environmental or ethical reasons and/or are vegan. And some are convinced it contributes to acne or upper-respiratory symptoms like colds and catarrh."

Think twice: "It's really important, for young women especially, to get enough calcium, for healthy bones and teeth," says Govindji. "Yes, you can get it from other sources such as dark green leafy vegetables. But you'd have to eat three times the weight of broccoli as milk to get the same amount." Aim for three portions a day, a portion being one glass of milk, a matchbox-sized piece of cheese or 150g yoghurt. Worried it's fattening? Despite the name, even full-fat milk isn't a high-fat food. And plenty of studies have linked a diet high in calcium to being a healthy weight.

Always report new symptoms of digestive discomfort to your GP, so true allergy or intolerance can be identified, but the good news is that many cases of lactose intolerance are temporary, triggered by a gastrointestinal illness. If you're still convinced a dairy-free life is for you, seek out fortified alternatives. "A switch to lactose-free or A2 milk (which has the protein some people react to removed) may work," says Govindji. "Or try plant-based versions, such as soya alternatives to milk, or rice, oat or nut milks." Check the label to make sure it's fortified with calcium and not sweetened.

What happens when…you give up sugar?

Why would I do that? Unless you've been hiding on a remote island for the past few years, you can't fail to have noticed the anti-sugar public health advice. The new version of the Eat Well Plate, an infographic the government's Department of Health uses to show us what food groups we need and in what proportion, leaves sugary foods off the plate altogether.

"All carbohydrates, including fruit and vegetables, are broken down into glucose in the body and we need that for energy," says Kellow. "It's sugars that aren't naturally present in foods that are the problem, added by manufacturers or you. New guidelines conclude adults should have no more than seven teaspoons a day. A can of fizzy drink can contain nine, so it's very easy to exceed." And having them in excess is linked with obesity, diabetes and dental decay.

Think twice: "Don't become obsessed and start fearing foods," cautions Bond. There are some foods and drinks that have sugar as the main ingredient and give you little else, like sugary drinks and confectionery," says Kellow. "But others have more to offer and a little sugar makes things more palatable, such as nutrient-rich wholegrain breakfast cereals, fruit loaf or a bran muffin." Likewise, 150ml of fruit juice a day is a valuable source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre. Being aware of sugar content is a good idea. And if you like baking, you can halve the sugar content of most recipes without affecting the results. "Just don't take it too seriously," says Marber. "The odd slice of birthday cake won't hurt."

Beware of: sugar substitutes, some of which are just sugar by another name. Honey, date purée, brown sugar - they're just masquerading as the healthier choice. If you want a sugar-free sweetness, go for a natural, low-calorie sweetener such as stevia or xylitol.

How do you know if you really have an intolerance?

By Helen Bond of the British Dietetic Association

  • If you're worried about any symptom, be it a change in bowel habits, digestive discomfort, skin, energy or weight issues, always see your GP.

  • Keep a detailed food, symptom and mood diary for a month before giving up any foods.

  • If you spot a pattern of symptoms following certain food types, choose one and eliminate it for two to four weeks (so don't give up gluten and dairy - if symptoms improve, you won't know which made the difference).

  • If you feel better, you may have a sensitivity to that food. Eliminate it, but replace its nutrients (the goal is to gradually reintroduce the food, not give it up for life).

  • Don't waste your money on internet and high-street testing services. All the above is best done under the guidance of a registered dietitian or qualified nutritionist. Your GP may refer you, or try


Photography by Victoria Ling