Gluten-Free Goes Forward

By: 

Esther Mills, nutritionist and health journalist

Issue: 
Spring
Year of publication: 
2010

 You’ve got stomach cramps. You’ve had diarrhoea for weeks. You feel tired and run down. You’ve read about gluten-free diets and wondered whether this is for you. You visit your GP and sure enough, your blood test confirms that you have Coeliac disease. What now?

Gluten – what?

Gluten is an interesting protein component found within the starchy endosperm of many cereal grains, primarily wheat, rye, barley (oats are a matter of debate, as it seems that, in their pure form, many coeliacs can tolerate them). Together, two specific proteins, gliadin and glutenin account for its properties. It’s the most amazingly stretchy fraction, with elasticity, giving its stretchy, spongy properties that we need for making breads, doughs and cereal-based foods with height and volume. So important are the glutenous protein components of cereals to food processing, that scientists at the University of Bristol have been genetically engineering/ selectively breeding different wheat grains with varying amounts of the highly elastic ‘glutenin’ fraction. Food technology is always moving it along. Are the grains that were used in foods ten years ago the grains which are commonly used today? Are UK manufacturers importing wheat and other cereal grains from the same sources this year? Are the flours, breads, cakes and doughs that you’re buying being imported (when was the last time you checked the ‘made in’ label?’). With so many variables, it’s easy to see why sensitivities to gluten can develop seemingly unexpectedly. It certainly seems that there are more people experiencing coeliac-type symptoms.

Gluten – what gut symptoms?

The symptoms of Coeliac disease vary from person to person, ranging from mild to severe. Typical symptoms include bloating, pains in the stomach, nausea, diarrhoea, excessive wind, heartburn, indigestion and/or constipation, tiredness and lethargy (very similar to Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Historically, a big factor in deciding whether someone had gluten sensitivity was whether they were losing weight. However, it’s now recognised that normal or even overweight people can be sensitive to gluten. Likewise with vitamin deficiencies. Gluten-sensitivity can result in deficiencies of vitamin B12, iron or folic acid, but this doesn’t always have to be the case. According to Coeliac UK, other symptoms can include mouth ulcers, hair loss, skin rash, tooth enamel problems, osteoporosis, depression, infertility, repeated miscarriages, joint and/or bone pain and nerve problems such as poor muscle co-ordination or numbness and tingling in the hands and feet. Many people try some form of diet for themselves, cutting out wheat, dairy and any foods which they suspect might be causing these symptoms. There may be temporary success, and an easing off of symptoms, but medical diagnosis is vital for a person to really know what they’re dealing with – whether simple food intolerances, or Coeliac disease.

So, no gluten, please...

If you’re just been diagnosed as having gluten sensitivity, then the first thing to be grateful for is the advancement of technology which means that you’re not going to miss out on your favourite foods! Twenty years ago, gluten-free flours were hard to work with, and people would spend ages experimenting in kitchens, trying to make cakes which were thicker than a pancake. Your biscuits often crumbled into a powdery pile of crumbs. Going out was a nightmare – nothing on the menu for you. But how things have changed! In recent years, highly popular detox plans and other dietary approaches which excluded wheat and dairy pushed consumers to ask for more products. In response, manufacturers invested in new processing technologies and flavours. Of course, this is great news for anyone following a gluten-free diet long term, as studies clearly show that variety in the diet leads to better psychological mood and, because people enjoy eating a wider variety of goods, their ‘nutrient pool’ (amount of nutrients, in number and variety, available in a diet) is bigger. And, it’s important to remember that this wider variety of foods in your diet means that you still need to keep an eye on your saturated fat, salt and sugar intakes. Just because they’re gluten-free doesn’t make them any healthier than conventional treats. In fact, maybe you should use your dietary regime to make your diet as healthy as you possibly can.  

My diet’s better than your diet...?

Going gluten-free could be the start of a new, healthy diet plan, which could actually increase the nutritional value of your diet:

  •  Using soya-based flours, quinoa flour and other more unusual flours in your diet will increase your baseline protein intakes. Ask your nutritionist for dietary advice about what you can use.
  • Having to switch to a gluten-free mindset means that your diet will become more diverse. For example, switching to rice-based foods may encourage you to try out more Oriental dishes. Switching to bean-based means may push you towards Moroccan or African. There’s a whole world’s worth of recipes out there to try.
  • Your diet will become disciplined. You won’t be able to simply nip into a sandwich bar for the latest deal. Your diet will become well considered. This is necessary for everyone wanting to make their diet as vitamin and mineralpacked, and low fat/salt and low sugar as possible. In fact, your new diet could inspire others into healthier eating!
Keywords: 
HEALTH CONDITIONS, Coeliac disease, gluten, wheat, grains
The Institute for Optimum Nutrition is an independent educational charity.
Registered company number 2724405, registered charity number 1013084