What is a gluten-free diet?
Registered nutritionist, Jo Lewin explains what gluten is, it’s implications for some people and where you can find information and support
What is gluten?
Gluten refers to a group of proteins found in certain grains such as wheat, rye and barley. Gluten has some valuable properties that are often exploited in cooking and, especially, baking. This is because gluten provides elasticity and strength and has an ability to 'hold' ingredients together. No surprise then that gluten can be found in lots of different foods – from pasta to ready meals – as well as in some foods that you’d probably not expect.
What is the problem with gluten?
Modern diets have become increasingly high in gluten-containing products. However, for approximately 1 in 100 people, with a condition called coeliac disease, consuming gluten causes an immune reaction which leads to damage to the small intestine. This may result in a range of symptoms including bloating, diarrhoea, headaches, sudden or unexpected weight loss as well as hair loss and anaemia. This wide variation in symptoms makes coeliac disease hard to diagnose, however, once diagnosed, it is treated by following a life-long gluten-free diet.
If you suspect you have coeliac disease, you are advised to refer to your GP before making any changes to your diet.
There are other individuals who find the elimination of gluten benefits their health symptoms, however, it’s important to emphasise that for the majority of us gluten in the diet poses no problem at all.
Other conditions for which gluten avoidance may be useful is gluten- sensitive irritable bowel syndrome and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.
What is a gluten-free diet?
A strict gluten-free diet involves the avoidance of any grain containing gluten and any product made from them or their derivatives. Such grains include, but are not limited to wheat (including spelt and Khorasan), barley and rye. It’s important that you get into the habit of reading labels carefully and you should be aware that any gluten-containing grain, on foods manufactured and sold in the UK, must be highlighted or written in bold in accordance with food allergen labelling requirements. If a product is labelled as ‘gluten-free’ its gluten content must be no more than 20 parts per million.
Some products may also provide precautionary guidance – this is relevant where a product, that is free of gluten itself, may be at risk of contamination from its manufacturing environment.
Although, avoiding gluten may sound daunting, the good news is that modern advances in food manufacture means brick-like-bread, dry flaky pastries and gritty gluten-free crackers are a thing of the past.
If you’re a keen baker you’ll be pleased to hear that using substitute ingredients like xanthan gum with a gluten-free flour helps compensate for gluten’s elasticity allowing your home-made bread and cakes to rise. Look for combination flours which tend to work best for cakes, biscuits and pastry: 60% stronger flours (such as gram or maize) to 40% finer, lighter flours (such as white rice, potato or tapioca).
Is a gluten-free diet healthy?
There are potential downsides to following a gluten-free diet including loss of dietary fibre, deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, and potential heavy metal exposure. Furthermore, studies suggest that healthy individuals following a gluten-free diet may have an altered gut microbiome, with a reduction in beneficial gut bacteria and an increase in less favourable strains. Although for those with a diagnosis of coeliac disease the converse is seen, with improvements in the numbers of beneficial gut bacteria.
In order to ensure your diet is nutrient-dense eat a wide variety of gluten-free grains, fruit and vegetables.
Useful substitutes include:
What are the myths about gluten-containing foods?
People often think oats contain gluten but they actually contain a similar but different protein called avenin. Research has shown many people who avoid gluten may safely eat avenin, however, problems arise if the oats are handled in the same manufacturing plant as wheat, barley or rye. For this reason, if you do eat oats, choose those labelled ‘gluten-free’.
Some foods that contain gluten may come as a surprise – these include processed meats, dry-roasted nuts, marinades, soy sauce, condiments, malt, spice mixes and more. It’s important to read labels so you understand exactly what you are consuming.
Where can I find more information about gluten-free eating?
The Coeliac UK website has a trusted food and drink directory for members along with other useful advice on living gluten-free. They also have a mobile app complete with barcode scanner, label guide and eating out tips.
Be inspired and try more of our favourite gluten-free recipes.
Do you follow a gluten-free diet? Have you any tips you can share? Share your experiences in the comments below….
This feature was reviewed on 21 June 2022 by Registered Nutritionist Kerry Torrens
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post-graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
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