There is a growing interest amongst health-conscious individuals to explore the option of going gluten-free… in other words removing foods from their diet that contain gluten. Gluten is the name given to a group of proteins (e.g. gluten, glutenin and gliadin), present in grains such as wheat, spelt, kamut, rye, barley and oats.
Why do we have gluten in our food?
Food manufactures also add gluten to a variety of foodstuffs to add elasticity, volume and “rise” or expansion. Gluten also gives a chewy texture to some foods. This makes it somewhat of a challenge in modern day to avoid gluten completely – it’s present in thousands of foods worldwide including breads and bread products, cakes, biscuits and bars, buns, pizzas, wraps, rolls and a great majority of processed foods.
Even simple packaged foods such as soups, ready meals or sweets contain fillers such as wheat flour, and therefore contain gluten.
So what’s the deal with gluten?
Gluten can pose a serious threat for those with a diagnosed gluten allergy, most commonly known as coeliac disease. The gluten proteins act like a poison to the lining of the gut, creating inflammation,damage and decay to the cells. As you might expect, this causes serious digestive and health complications.
However, what is becoming more common, and more apparent to doctors and other health professionals is the increasing incidence of gluten “intolerance” or sensitivity, whereby gluten is being identified as a significant contributor to health and gut problems (e.g. leaky gut), even without a positive test for full-blown gluten allergy.
The term “non-coeliac gluten sensitivity” (NCGS) is now beginning to be officially recognised in the medical world, and various scientific studies and reviews have recently been published on the topic.
One such paper is a thorough literature review of the incidence and reportings of NCGS published in The Journal of the American College of Nutrition calling for more research into this area. Food manufacturers are cottoning on too, with a sharp increase in, and availability of “gluten-free” foods and products. However, it is important to be aware that these are not always healthy, and can be highly processed with added sugars and preservatives.
Gluten sensitivity and other conditions
It is becoming quite apparent to doctors, nutritionists and other health professionals worldwide, that patients don’t have to have full-blown coeliac disease to suffer serious health problems and complications from eating gluten.
Gluten sensitivity or undiagnosed gluten allergy has also been linked with many common health disorders and diseases. These include osteoporosis, irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, anaemia, cancer, fatigue, canker sores, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and almost all other autoimmune diseases.
Gluten is also linked to many neurological and psychological diseases, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, epilepsy, and neuropathy.
Why has gluten become such a problematic dietary substance?
Here are some likely reasons…
Our lack of genetic adaptation to grasses and grains, particularly wheat
The hybridisation of wheat, and the changes in gluten and protein structure
The higher gluten content of many common, everyday foods, usually via the addition of gluten to improve the baking quality of foods
The sheer volume of grains and grain-based foods in modern-day diets
Is gluten causing you unnecessary problems?
The only way one can really tell, if gluten, or any food or substance, is a significant cause of any health or gut problems, is to eliminate it from the diet, and assess whether health, digestion or gluten-associated symptoms improve, or in fact, clear up. Whilst testing can help identify gluten allergy (and now testing can reveal gluten sensitivity too), the only way a person will really know if gluten is problematic is by doing the gold standard “allergy test” – an elimination of the suspect food for 2-4 weeks, and then a monitored, and supervised reintroduction.
Symptoms of gluten sensitivity
Poor digestion or digestive complaints – bloating, wind, pain, constipation or diarrhoea
Fatigue or chronic low energy
Foggy thinking or “brain fog”
Joint and muscle pain
Headaches or migraine
Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
Weight gain and difficulty losing weight.
Getting gluten out of your diet
Gluten is the not the easiest thing to take out of the diet, although, given a little direction, it’s relatively simple, and certainly do-able - The results for many people are well worth the effort. Remember that gluten is not just present in wheat; it’s part of other grains too, such as barley, spelt, kamut, rye and even oats, as well as many products commonly found on the shelves.
Whilst some gluten-intolerant individuals can tolerate some oats in the diet, it’s often a good idea to try eating for a week, totally gluten-free. Be very aware of the “hidden” sources of gluten, found in soups, tinned foods, and soup mixes, and even non-food related products such as lipsticks!
Want tips for a gluten-free diet?
Make a list of all the gluten-containing foods you currently eat. The majority of these will be the many wheat-based foods you eat! Wheat in itself can be a problem food for many, so these are probably the key foods to consider. These include all breads, cereals, biscuits or crackers, cakes and pasta.
Decide now whether you want to make a gradual reduction, or take out all the offending foods immediately.
A gradual approach might mean starting with breakfast, then moving on to gluten-free lunches, dinners, snacks and so on.
When embarking on any “new diet”, and certainly with respect to removing gluten, it’s important to monitor your digestion, your energy levels and your weight. Give your body time to adjust. If it helps – great! Continue looking for new meal ideas, and build a good repertoire of meals that you like and can rely on time and time again.
Try to avoid the many “gluten-free” processed foods and instead, embrace cooking from scratch and using the many naturally gluten-free, and highly nutritious foods such as quinoa, wild rice, wholegrain rice, red camargue rice, millet and amaranth. Remember, that the foundation of any good “diet” should be fresh vegetables and fruits