What is gluten and why do some people avoid it?

Victoria Evans
Nutritionist and Centre Manager at Bupa UK
01 May 2018

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This article is more than three years old. It reflects the best available evidence at the time of publication.

You probably know the term ‘gluten’ pretty well already. It might be from the gluten-free muffin you’ve noticed in your favourite coffee shop, or the gluten-free bread in your local supermarket. But what exactly is gluten? What’s the difference between gluten intolerance and coeliac disease – and should you cut gluten out of your diet for any other reason? Read on to find out.

What is gluten?

Gluten is the name given to the proteins found in certain cereal grains: mainly wheat, rye, barley and some oats. It helps to bind certain foods like bread, pasta, pizza, cereals, cakes and biscuits, giving them their doughy texture.

You can find gluten in a large variety of foods and often in products you might not expect. You’ll find it in some alcoholic drinks, sauces like soy sauce, salad dressings and gravy, processed meats such as sausages, and even some medicines.

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

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

Should I cut gluten out of my diet?

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 has 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. Also, if you need to have tests for coeliac disease but have already cut out gluten, the tests might not give the right result.

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 tissue in your body. Other examples include type 1 diabetes, thyroid disease (underactive or overactive) 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. Thankfully, supermarkets and restaurants are much better at catering for this diet than they used to be. We even have some tips about gluten-free baking for coeliacs that you might be interested in.

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.

Get to know your labels

If you’re advised by a doctor or dietitian to cut out gluten, it will probably seem a bit daunting at first. Remember, there are lots of foods that are naturally gluten-free to choose from and there’s now 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 and online.

There are regulations in place for ingredients lists on packaging to clearly display gluten-containing foods, such as 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. Coeliac UK is a brilliant place to start.

Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

Victoria Evans
Victoria Evans
Nutritionist and Centre Manager at Bupa UK