Gluten Free Diet
What is gluten?
Gluten is one of those things that most of us don’t realise we eat on almost a daily basis. Its name in Latin literally means “glue”, which is appropriate as this protein composite is what helps make cookies chewy and pizza dough elastic enough to throw around your head (if you’re not afraid of hilarious accidents, that is!). Gluten is found in all foods processed from wheat, barley and rye.
How do I know if I am sensitive to gluten?
If you are experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating, cramping, diarrhoea or constipation after eating wheat, rye or barley, you may have coeliac disease and should go to your doctor to get tested. If you test negative for coeliac but are still experiencing symptoms after eating gluten-containing foods you could be ‘sensitive’ to the gluten protein in them. As well as gastro-intestinal symptoms, people who are gluten sensitive may experience a foggy mind, depression, ADHD-like behaviour, skin rash, anaemia, joint pain and numbness in arms, fingers or legs. It can be disheartening when an ailment has gone undiagnosed, but don’t panic! Gluten sensitivity is more like the rapid response of other dietary intolerances than coeliac, and doesn’t do long term damage to your intestines in the same way. Try reducing your gluten intake and see if you feel better, then you’ll know for sure!
What foods should I enjoy as part of my gluten-free diet?
The gluten-free diet mainly consists of fresh, naturally gluten-free foods like meat and poultry, fish, fruit and vegetables, most dairy products, fresh eggs, unprocessed beans, lentils, seeds and nuts, as well as rice and potatoes. There are also plenty of grains and starches that can still be included such as buckwheat, cornmeal, millet and quinoa. Corn and rice also contain gluten, but are considered gluten-free for the purposes of this diet, as the gluten in these species don’t cause the adverse side-effects associated with gluten sensitivity. There are also plenty of gluten-free substitute foods like specially made gluten-free bread, flour, pasta, crackers and biscuits that are available in the shops if you really miss them. So there’s plenty of choice, you just need to get creative and arrange your shopping list a little differently!
What foods should I avoid as part of my gluten-free diet?
Steer clear of the three gluten containing cereals wheat, barley and rye, as well as triticale (a cross between barley and wheat). This can be especially tricky with wheat as it goes by so many different names. A few to remember are: bulgur, durum flour, farina, graham flour, kanut, semolina and spelt. The best way to avoid gluten is simply to think about what foods are made up of. For example, we all know that most bread and pasta, pastries and breakfast cereals contain wheat. Thinking like this helps us easily cross other obvious foods off the list, like cakes, cookies, biscuits, crackers, pizza, battered and breaded food. Be careful with snack foods like crisps or tortilla chips too… even though tortillas are made from potato and corn respectively, the seasoning will most likely have gluten in. It’s best to avoid additives and flavouring agents generally. Processed foods (such as spam or store-bought sausages and burgers) often contain gluten as a stabilising agent and imitation meats and most ready meals also normally contain gluten. Lots of store-bought sauces like ketchup, soy sauce and salad dressings also use gluten as a stabilising agent, and you need to be aware of it being used as a thickening agent in soups and sauces like gravy and cheese sauce. Beers are made from barley (or sometimes wheat) so avoid that too, unless it’s gluten-free beer.
A note on labelling and eating out.
As ever, the most important thing to remember when shopping gluten-free is to always check the label. International food labelling standards enforce the labelling of products as "gluten-free", but this standard doesn’t apply to foods that don’t contain gluten in their “normal form”. This means that in the UK, only cereals must be labelled; labelling of other products is voluntary. For example, most British sausages contain a food additive made from grain. It is also important to remember that ‘wheat-free’ labelling doesn’t necessarily mean ‘gluten-free’, as these products may still contain rye or barley.
Cafes, restaurants and pubs are provided guidance by the Food Standards Agency, but they aren’t required to meet any labelling requirements, so it’s always a good idea to have a word with your waiter or chef before ordering if you are unsure of your menu choice (don’t worry, they won’t spit in your food for being awkward if you are nice about it!).
What are the benefits of a gluten-free diet?
Thankfully, most people who go gluten-free start to feel better within a few days. The common symptoms of gluten-sensitivity like nausea, diarrhoea and bloating which will normally clear up completely within a few weeks of going on a gluten-free diet (some symptoms will clear up faster than others; it depends on your body).
What are the risks of a gluten-free diet?
The grains that are excluded from the gluten-free diet are nutrient-rich so you do need to make sure that you are consuming enough of these nutrients elsewhere. The ones to be aware of are: iron, calcium, foliate, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and fibre. Of course, you can always take supplements, but so it’s relatively easy to balance your diet to ensure that you are injecting these into your diet from other sources.