Learn what you can safely eat to a prevent uncomfortable gut symptoms
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, spelt and barley that acts as a glue to hold food together. It is made up of two types of protein molecules: gliadins and glutenins.
Someone with gluten intolerance is sensitive to these proteins and experiences pain and bloating after eating gluten-containing foods. Other symptoms include loose bowels/ diarrhoea, constipation, tiredness, nausea, headaches and brain fog.
The onset of symptoms varies; for some people, the reaction can occur shortly after eating gluten and for others, it can take up to 24 hours.
Learn the difference between gluten intolerance and coeliac disease, the foods to avoid on a gluten-free diet and what you can safely eat to avoid uncomfortable gut symptoms.
Cause of gluten intolerance
Health issues resulting from gluten consumption have increased considerably in the last fifty years and rates of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and wheat allergies have risen exponentially.
This is largely due to food production processes and how grains are grown and manufactured, especially wheat. Grains are fumigated, bleached, treated with anti-caking agents and sprayed with fungicides and insecticides to extend shelf-life. The harsh treatment of grains is likely to be causing all these grain-related problems, not the gluten itself.
Another important point to note is that wheat is vastly different nowadays to what it used to be. In order to create a higher-yielding, low-cost crop, food manufacturers began tampering with wheat crops in the 1960s using genetic manipulation and cross-breeding of plants. The genetic modification of foods (GMO) is a cause for concern and the long-term health issues surrounding it are unknown. Modern-day wheat processing strips out key nutrients (fibre, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients), being replaced with harmful additives and preservatives instead.
Difference between gluten intolerance and coeliac disease
Gluten intolerance and coeliac disease are often considered the same thing as the symptoms a person presents with are similar; however, they are different conditions.
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system attacks its own mucosa tissue in the small intestine in response to eating gluten. It affects one in a hundred people in the UK and Ireland, yet only 10 – 20% are diagnosed.
The small intestine is lined with villi which are tiny hair-like projections that help the body absorb vitamins and minerals from food. Eating gluten causes an inflammatory response which damages the villi, leading to malabsorption. When your body doesn’t effectively absorb nutrients from food, a whole host of health issues and growth problems can arise.
Even though gluten intolerance does involve an immune response, there is no autoimmunity and gluten doesn’t cause the body to produce antibodies or damage to the gut lining.
Coeliac disease symptoms include:
- Diarrhoea and explosive bowel motions as the body reacts violently to expel the gluten.
- Smelly, frothy and greasy stools due to unabsorbed fats passing straight through the digestive system undigested.
- Abdominal pain, bloating and gas – the stomach blows out and looks swollen; it can also be painful to touch.
- Constipation – when the villi in the intestines are unable to absorb nutrients, they instead absorb extra moisture from stools, making them hard and difficult to pass.
- Constant fatigue resulting from poor nutrient absorption (especially iron, B12 and folate which are essential for energy production in the body).
- Vomitting can sometimes occur, especially in children.
- Unexpected weight loss is an early warning sign of coeliac disease due to the malabsorption of nutrients which can lead to malnutrition.
- Swollen hands, feet and legs due to fluid build-up which is triggered by the immune response and inflammation.
- An itchy, blistering rash that is caused by an abnormal autoimmune response.
Symptoms vary in severity from person to person, and usually occur soon after eating gluten.
Gluten intolerant or a coeliac – how to tell?
As the symptoms for gluten intolerance and coeliac disease are similar, how do you know which you are experiencing?
Generally speaking, when someone has coeliac disease, the symptoms and reactions to ingesting gluten will be more severe and happen much quicker as the body responds by mounting an immune response. Someone who is gluten intolerant is likely to experience less severe, short-term symptoms after gluten consumption.
The best way to know for sure is to do a coeliac antibodies blood test. The tests detect the presence of two types of antibodies in the blood: Tissue transglutaminase antibody (tTG) and Immunoglobulin A (IgA). Speak to your natural health practitioner who can organise these tests for you.
What foods contain gluten?
- Wheat, barley and rye
- Triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye)
- Kamut and spelt (these are varieties of wheat)
- All flour that is not gluten-free
- Semolina and couscous
- Breads, pasta, cakes, biscuits, wafers, crackers, pies, pizza, cereals, croutons and muesli bars (unless they are gluten-free)
- Pasta sauces, salad dressings, soy sauce, stocks, gravies and condiments often contain gluten in the form of wheat flour
- Vegan/vegetarian meat and fish alternatives
- Seasoned rice mixes and snack foods (including flavoured crisps)
- Pre-packaged soups and soup mixes
- Some alcohol: beer, lagers, stouts and ales contain different amounts of gluten
- Malted foods and drinks
* Oats are naturally gluten-free; however, oats can become cross-contaminated with gluten-containing grains (if manufactured at the same place). When buying oats, check that they are 100% gluten-free which will be indicated on the label.
What to eat on a gluten-free diet
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
- Nut and seed butters (almond, cashew, tahini)
- Lentils, beans and chickpeas (unprocessed and natural form)
- Eggs (opt for organic)
- Lean meats and fish (opt for organic and non-farmed)
- Gluten-free grains and starches:
- Polenta (check it’s gluten-free)
- Sorghum (similar to millet but larger)
- Tapioca (also called casava root)
- Teff (looks like poppy seeds)
- Gluten-free flours (opt for almond, amaranth, buckwheat, chickpea, coconut, rice, sorghum or teff)
Gluten-free diet tips
- Read food labels to check the ingredient list. Most processed and packaged foods contain hidden gluten. Allergens should be highlighted in bold.
- Be aware that many gluten-free alternatives such as bread, wraps and cakes tend to be laden with sugars, additives and preservatives. So, despite being gluten-free, it doesn’t mean they are healthy.
- Make people aware of your gluten intolerance or allergy, especially when eating out in a restaurant. Double-check that sauces/gravies/stocks and accompanying condiments do not contain gluten.
- Plan ahead and bring your own packed lunch when travelling or out for the day. This will save you the headache of trying to find gluten-free food when hungry. Luckily, nowadays, there are lots of gluten-free options available, however, this isn’t always the case.
- Use separate utensils and cookware to avoid cross-contamination. Stainless steel is best as non-stick pans can absorb gluten. Also opt for non-porous cutting boards for food preparation.
Eating gluten is not advisable for anyone, and especially not if you’re gluten intolerant or a coeliac. Gluten causes inflammation and damage to the gut lining which leads to health complications and malabsorption issues. Avoid gluten-containing foods and instead eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. Start reading labels and be aware when eating out as many foods contain hidden gluten. Learn more about reading food labels.