Gluten: to eat or not to eat? The ever debated question..

Registered nutritional therapist, Amy Berry, explores why more and more of us are switching to a gluten free diet and why this doesn’t have to mean giving up your favourite treats…

It seems that nowadays, if you are involved in the health industry, you simply can’t avoid the ‘gluten-free’ debate. As a registered nutritional therapist I certainly get asked regularly about my opinion on gluten, and as a mum of two young daughters, I also feel the pressure to offer gluten-free alternatives at birthday parties! 

There is a growing surge of opinion that a healthy diet is a gluten-free one and there is also an ever-expanding body of evidence to link gluten to a range of common health conditions. So how might gluten affect our health? Should products laced with gluten be permanently struck off our shopping lists or will the gluten-free fad soon fade away?

Coeliac Disease

Gluten is a protein commonly found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. For those living with coeliac disease, going gluten–free is by no means a phase. Coeliac disease is an increasingly common condition that currently affects 1 in 100 people in the UK. According to the charity Coeliac UK, however, only 24% who have the condition have been diagnosed which means there are currently nearly half a million people living with the condition without being aware. 

Coeliac disease is a serious auto-immune condition which is caused by a reaction of the immune system to gluten – a protein commonly found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. If gluten is consumed by a person with this condition, it can cause severe damage to the lining of the gut which leads to malabsorption of food, nutrient deficiencies and a wide array of distressing symptoms. These symptoms range from mild to severe, and can include bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, wind, constipation, tiredness, headaches, mouth ulcers, weight loss, hair loss and anaemia.

Once diagnosed the only treatment is to follow a life-long gluten-free diet, simply put, this means cutting out all products and foods that may contain or, be contaminated with, gluten. This may sound like an enormous challenge to those who can’t face life without bread, pasta, cakes or biscuits, for example, however it doesn’t have to be. There is an abundance of fantastic healthy alternative products available nowadays and a wealth of fantastic coeliac recipes at the touch of a button, thus following a coeliac diet is now much more achievable than ever.

Gluten sensitivity/intolerance

Interestingly, it isn’t just those with coeliac disease who may experience symptoms caused by consuming gluten.  Non coeliac gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance, appears to be becoming more common, causing some similar symptoms to those experienced in coeliac disease such as headaches, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, bloating and diarrhoea among others. 

Gluten sensitivity is defined as a reaction to gluten in which allergic and autoimmune mechanisms have been excluded. More specifically, blood tests will be negative for coeliac disease but antigliadin antibodies may be present. Gliadin is the protein found in gluten which is associated with many negative health effects. When gliadin becomes water soluble, it is free to bind to cells in your body. If you are intolerant, your body will make antibodies to gliadin and attack the cells gliadin has attached itself to, treating those cells as unwanted invaders. This immune response, or inflammation, damages surrounding tissue and has the potential to set off, or exacerbate, many other health problems throughout your body, which is why gluten can have such serious effects on your overall health.

By removing gluten from the diet, the symptoms of gluten intolerance normally resolve themselves but reappear if gluten is reintroduced. Thus an exclusion diet is usually the best way to be sure if you are intolerant to gluten. 

Don’t worry! Following a gluten free diet doesn’t have to be a huge challenge. If you are concerned here are some guidelines and tips on what to eat and what to avoid…

Avoid refined carbohydrates and processed foods

Gluten is found in many grains such as wheat, rye, barley, spelt, bran, couscous, bulgar wheat and semolina so these must be avoided. Oats are often contaminated with gluten during their processing and packaging so it is advisable to purchase gluten-free oats instead. 

If you are diagnosed with coeliac disease or suffering with gluten intolerance then checking all food labelling is highly recommended. Gluten can be hidden in many food sources, particularly in processed foods such as ready-meals, pre-packaged soups, pasta sauces, cold meats, pies, quiches, gravy, stock cubes, soy sauce, dry roasted nuts, condiments, confectionary, puddings and various low- and no-fat products, as well as refined grain products like bread, breakfast cereals, pizza crust, pasta, biscuits, cakes and pastries.

Cutting out these foods from your diet, means you are avoiding many sources of refined carbohydrates which, aside from the symptom relief associated with avoiding gluten, may offer many other health benefits in itself. Research shows that diets rich in refined carbohydrates are associated with an increased risk of obesity and chronic diseases associated with metabolic syndrome such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Go natural!

So what can you eat on a gluten free diet? There are an abundance of naturally gluten-free foods out there. These include: fruit, vegetables, salad vegetables, rice, unprocessed red and white meat, fish, eggs and pulses (peas, beans and lentils). Quinoa is a great alternative to pasta or couscous as it contains good levels of protein and is also a very good source of important minerals such as calcium, magnesium and manganese. It also possesses good levels of several B vitamins, vitamin E and dietary fibre.

Consuming more of these un-processed, natural foods may also help to increase the nutrient content of your diet and have a positive knock-on effect on your health in general. But what if you still fancy the odd treat?!

Try nutritious alternatives

Going gluten free is now much more doable than it used to be with most supermarkets and health food stores stocking a wide range of good quality alternative products. You no longer have to avoid those delicious treats such a bread and cakes, with companies such as Sukrin offering nutritious alternatives such as whole food gluten-free flours and low-carb, protein-rich bread and cake mixes which are also free from sugar, egg, yeast and soya. Gone are the days where the only gluten-free products available were heavily processed, full of artificial additives and tasted like cardboard!

If you miss your cakes and fancy doing some gluten free baking yourself, there are now countless gluten free cake recipes available online which use a wide range of gluten free flours.  Opt for the more protein-rich flours such as almond, coconut, amaranth, buckwheat or quinoa flour to help regulate blood sugar levels and maximise nutrient intake. Or if you’d prefer to make life easy, why not try Sukrin cake mix? Rich in protein and free from gluten and sugar, this is a great option for those of us who are short on time but big on nutrition!

Don’t forget to ask for professional help

You don’t have to go through this alone. If you are experiencing symptoms such as those associated with coeliac disease or gluten intolerance, it may be worth visiting your GP for further tests. If you require further advice on how best to nutritionally support your body on a gluten-free diet, it is advisable to get in touch with a health professional such as a registered nutritional therapist. Nutritional therapists will offer in-depth guidance and personalised nutritional support so you can follow a diet and lifestyle plan that works for you and your body.

Amy Berry Nutritional Therapist BSc MBANT CNHCreg