Gluten is a protein composite traditionally found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye which are used to make bread, pasta and many other foods. Gluten acts as a ‘glue’ within foods and provides the elasticity and the chewy texture of these food groups.
Some people have a sensitivity to gluten and this can vary from mild to more severe, depending on the individual. Those with sensitivity are likely to experience symptoms such as bloating, cramps, diarrhoea, rashes, brain fog and overall digestive discomfort when they eat foods containing gluten.
Studies estimate that around 1-2% of the UK population suffer from coeliac disease and up to 6-7% of people experience non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. With these figures, it is no surprise that gluten-free foods and diets are growing in popularity - with around 8 million people in the UK estimated to be gluten-sensitive.
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder where your immune system actually attacks your own tissue, when gluten is consumed. Those with coeliac disease are likely to experience even more severe digestive issues and consuming gluten when you are coeliac can also cause damage to your intestines, reducing your ability to absorb nutrients.
What to eat if you have coeliac disease
Fortunately, there are plenty of naturally gluten-free foods that can be incorporated into a balanced diet. Fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meat, fish and poultry are all gluten-free.
Most low-fat dairy products and eggs also contain no gluten. For those who prefer to eat a plant-based diet, unprocessed beans, nuts and seeds can all be consumed alongside fresh fruit and veg, as part of a gluten-free and vegan diet.
There are also multiple grains, flours and starches that are gluten-free: buckwheat, flax, quinoa, rice & soy to name a few! Oats are naturally gluten-free too but you may choose to avoid these all together, as oats can be contaminated during production by gluten-based grains such as wheat, barley or rye.
Oat items that are labelled gluten-free are unlikely to be contaminated by these grains but coeliacs may still wish to avoid these to be safe. The best way to ensure you are consuming gluten-free foods is to always check packaging and labelling. As well as looking for wheat, barley and rye, other names to look out for include: Einkorn, Emmer, Kamut, Durum and Spelt.
Alongside checking labels carefully, many supermarkets now offer free-from sections which sell a range of gluten-free products which individuals with coeliac or sensitivity can buy safely. As the number of people eating gluten-free foods continues to rise, food items such as gluten-free bread, pasta, cereals and more are now readily available in most supermarkets!
As well as checking food labels, there are drinks that can also contain gluten that you need to consider when swapping to a gluten-free diet. Most non-alcoholic drinks are naturally gluten free (fruit juice, tea, coffee) but many alcoholic beverages such as distilled spirits, beers, lagers and ales will contain gluten.
Even when dining out, many restaurants will now offer a range of gluten-free options for their diners. Of course, those with a sensitivity or coeliac disease should always notify the restaurant staff to ensure that there is no cross-contamination in the kitchen between the gluten-based foods and gluten-free options.
What to do if you think you may have an intolerance to gluten
If you are experiencing some of the symptoms mentioned above and are worried that it is associated with consuming gluten, we would always suggest speaking to a health professional, such as your GP. Keeping a food diary and a symptom log for a couple of weeks is also a great tool to take to your GP, to help establish any possible link between gluten and your symptoms.
For those who have a diagnosis, there are multiple charities - such as Coeliac UK - that offer information, resources and support for those living with coeliac disease.