1. What is a gluten-free diet in basic terms?
Gluten is a protein compound found most commonly in the grains wheat, barley, rye and oats. This protein gives the flour e.g wheat, its structure, strength and texture. This is why bread has a certain ‘bounce’ or stretch. Rye and oats contain a slightly different type of gluten and therefore some people who may believe they are gluten-intolerant may only be intolerant to wheat (and not, for example, oats).
Gluten sensitivity or intolerance is something you can be born with or develop (any time from your childhood and indeed into your 30s, 40s and so on). It is also something that can be tolerated better if the correct nutritional steps are taken.
A more serious classification of gluten intolerance is coeliac disease – where the immune system has a very serious response to the consumption of gluten. The immune system attacks itself and this causes damage to the lining of the small intestine and other parts of the body. Those who are gluten sensitive may only experience a range of symptoms but usually they are not as severe as those experienced by coeliac sufferers. Undiagnosed coeliac disease can have serious implications for long-term health. In most cases coeliac disease sufferers will not be able to tolerate gluten at any point – meaning will need to avoid gluten for their entire life. Being gluten sensitive does not usually pose the same kind of risk for long-term health and with the right help, sufferers may be able to re-introduce gluten with no symptoms after a period of exclusion.
Common foods that do not contain gluten are: rice (white and brown), corn (or sometimes called maize), quinoa, millet, amaranth, potatoes. There are lots of gluten free products available today. An example of gluten free pasta would be brown rice pasta. Sometimes gluten free cakes are made from almond or coconut flour.
2. Why would someone follow a gluten-free diet?
Before a gluten sensitivity (intolerance) or coeliac disease is actually diagnosed, a person may suspect how they are feeling is connected to what they have eaten. Just a few common symptoms of gluten intolerance include:
- Headaches or migraines
- Skin problems (spots, skin rashes)
- Digestive issues e.g. bloating
- IBS- like symptoms (constipation or loose stools)
- Nutrient deficiencies or problems absorbing nutrients
- Gut pain after eating or delayed abdominal discomfort
- Inflammation and joint discomfort
Once correctly diagnosed, a person may find relief from these symptoms by following a gluten free diet.
The best way to check for food intolerances such as gluten, or indeed to identify coeliac disease, is through your GP or a qualified nutritional therapist. If gluten sensitivity is found or indeed coeliac disease, then you may need professional assistance in following a specific diet. Those with actual coeliac disease should always speak to their doctor as this disease can have more serious implications for future health.
3. What are the benefits of a gluten-free diet?
Apart from potential relief from undesirable or distressing symptoms, following gluten free diet can help to widen your dietary choices in a positive way. For example, an alternative to wheat pasta or cous cous (made from wheat) is the seed quinoa. Quinoa is served as a grain and is more nutrient rich than wheat flour or cous cous, being higher in enzymes, minerals and plant protein.
If you have a genuine food intolerance the immune system is being constantly challenged creating constant low levels of inflammation - this may cause adverse symptoms long term. Therefore by following this diet (if required) you are supporting your body all round.
Often those with un-diagnosed or newly diagnosed coeliac disease may exhibit symptoms of poor nutrient levels, e.g iron. Therefore by removing the gluten, the person’s gut is better supported and this may improve their ability to absorb nutrients from food.
4. Are there any downsides to following a gluten-free diet?
Even though food retailers have responded to a change in the times – with lots of gluten free options - it can still be difficult to find them in every shop or café. They may also be more expensive.
Sometimes people lose weight on a gluten free diet but if someone is already very slim, this can be unhealthy.
In some cases, ready-made gluten free products – particularly snacks and cakes - contain greater proportions of corn and potato flour. These specific flours release their energy quickly – increasing the likelihood of energy peaks and dips. Better gluten free options that release their energy slowly are brown rice, quinoa, millet, coconut flour and almond flour.
In addition, many commercial gluten free products contain more added sugar and glucose syrup that would be in their wheat-containing equivalents. Gluten free does not always mean healthier!
If you have suspected gluten intolerance but not coeliac disease, don’t cut out all gluten containing foods at first. Try removing wheat and see what happens over a month and use a food diary to detail your symptoms. Visit a qualified nutritional therapist to make a professional assessment as it may not be wheat or gluten that is causing you discomfort. If you are found to be gluten intolerant, the nutritional therapist will also be able to ensure that you are following a healthy eating plan and not losing nutrients through cutting out gluten containing foods.