Your guide to gluten

Wheat and bread

Have you ever found yourself wondering if you should cut something out of your diet completely? Maybe dairy, processed meat, sugar, alcohol or even gluten? But been unsure of the facts, the reason why and if you really should?

Health and diet advice can often be conflicting or exaggerated and it can be hard to know what’s what when it comes to making healthy food choices. One area where this is particularly true is when it comes to food allergies and intolerances.

It’s Coeliac Awareness Week, and we’ve got the facts about the highly talked about subject of gluten intolerance. Read on to find out more.

What is gluten?

You’ve probably heard of the term gluten in recent years, whether it’s the ‘gluten-free’ muffin alternative that has crept into your favourite coffee shop, or the ‘gluten-free’ loaves of bread that have appeared on your local supermarket shelves. But what does it mean?

Gluten is the name given to the proteins that help to bind certain foods like bread, pasta, pizza, cereals, cakes and biscuits, giving them their doughy texture. It’s found in a large variety of foods, and often in products you might not expect. You’ll find it in some alcohol, sauces like soy sauce, salad dressings and gravy, processed meats such as sausages, and even some medications.  But it’s most commonly found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and some oats.

Some people experience unpleasant symptoms when they eat gluten. These may include:

  • bloating
  • diarrhoea
  • feeling sick (nausea)
  • tummy cramps
  • headaches

Coeliac disease

Often confused with food allergies, coeliac disease is in fact a serious autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease is when your body’s immune system attacks otherwise healthy body parts. Other examples include type 1 diabetes, thyroid disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

If you have coeliac disease, your immune system responds to gluten as if it’s a harmful substance. As a result, the walls of your small intestine become damaged and nutrients can’t be absorbed properly. Unfortunately there’s no cure for coeliac disease and eating even small amounts of gluten can lead to severe discomfort. The only way to manage the condition is to avoid gluten completely.

Gluten intolerance

If you have a gluten intolerance, you may experience similar symptoms to coeliac disease when you eat gluten. But there’s no damage to your gut wall and nutrients can still be absorbed. This is sometimes referred to as non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and there’s no specific way of diagnosing this yet.

Unlike coeliac disease, if you have a gluten intolerance, your body may be able to handle a certain amount of gluten, but this will vary from person to person.

Eliminating gluten

The only way to manage the effects of these conditions is to cut gluten out of your diet. At first, avoiding gluten may seem a bit daunting as it’s surprising just how many foods it’s in.

Remember there are lots of foods that are naturally gluten-free to choose from and now there’s a whole industry dedicated to producing ‘free from’ foods. Most supermarkets now have a ‘free from’ aisle, and there are lots of gluten-free alternatives available such as gluten-free bread, cereals and biscuits. Many of these foods are also available in health food shops, online and some can even be prescribed by your GP.

Get to know your labels

There are regulations in place for ingredients lists on packaging to clearly display gluten-containing foods, for example wheat, rye, barley and spelt. But it’s still important to get to know your food labels and always check for yourself.

Charities and support groups dedicated to raising awareness of coeliac disease also have a valuable library of information, which can help you to make informed choices and manage your condition.

The number of people adopting a gluten-free lifestyle has seen a huge increase in recent years. Around one in every 100 people in the UK have coeliac disease and many cases are undiagnosed.  However, if you don’t have an intolerance or coeliac disease, gluten shouldn’t cause you any harm. So it’s important to make sure you’re diagnosed and speak to a specialist dietitian before starting a gluten-free diet. Cutting out complete food groups without seeking expert advice first could lead to you having an unbalanced diet.

Even healthy people become unwell sometimes. Health insurance can help you get prompt access to the treatment and support you need to help you get back on the road to recovery. Learn more with our useful guide to understanding health insurance.

Dietitian at Bupa UK

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