Gluten-Free Living

Gluten is the name given to the proteins naturally found in wheat, rye and barley. It plays an important role in bread-making because when flour is mixed with water, gluten forms a network which traps the bubbles of gas (carbon dioxide) which form during yeast fermentation. This is what gives bread its light and airy structure. When gluten-free flour is used to make bread the dough is softer and more difficult to handle as the gluten network is missing.

Gluten is found in foods made with cereal flours such as bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, cakes and biscuits. It can also be found where you might not expect it e.g. soups and sauces (where small amounts of flour can be used for thickening), sausages and burgers (these may have breadcrumbs in the recipe), as well as ready meals.

Prepackaged foods will always highlight the allergens in the ingredients list.

If you have been diagnosed with coeliac disease it is important that you cut all sources of gluten from your diet. Foods that are wheat free are not necessarily gluten-free, and vice versa, so check that you are selecting the right foods for your condition.

Of course, you still want to continue to eat a healthy diet. Gluten and wheat free foods may exclude these allergens, but they are not necessarily designed to help you achieve weight loss.

The following tips should help you to follow a healthy, balanced and gluten-free diet.

  • Many UK adults eat more calories than they need, compared to the amount of exercise they get. The average woman needs 2000 calories a day, and the average man needs 2500. Why not make a note of everything you eat for one day and see how many calories you are eating?
  • Try to base your meals on starchy carbohydrates such as rice, potatoes, yams, gluten- free breads, gluten- free pasta and gluten-free grains such as chia, millet, quinoa and teff. Nutritionists advise that starchy foods should make up about one third of the food we eat. Look for higher fibre foods which contain 6g of fibre or more per 100g. Good gluten- free sources of fibre include brown rice, high fibre and multigrain gluten- free breads, pulses such as peas, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, fruit and vegetables, and potatoes in their skins.
  • Saturated fats can raise our cholesterol levels, so look for unsaturated vegetable oils such as sunflower oil for cooking and spreading. Look for products with less than 5g of saturated fat per 100g.
  • We all know to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but how much is one portion? For small fruits, such as plums or satsumas, two pieces count as one portion. For berries, seven strawberries or 14 cherries. Half a grapefruit or a slice of melon count as one portion each. Fruit and vegetables are naturally gluten- free.
  • Try to reduce sugar and sugary foods. Sugar is often added to sweets, biscuits, cakes and full-sugar fizzy drinks.
  • Salt is often in the news because we need to make sure we don’t eat too much of it. Try not to add any salt to your food when you’re cooking or at the table. About three quarters of our salt intake comes from the food we buy, so look at the salt content on food packaging. More than 1.5g per 100g means that the food is high in salt. Try using herbs and spices to add flavour instead.
  • Drink plenty of water. All non-alcoholic drinks count towards the 1.6 litres of fluid we need each day, but water and semi-skimmed or low-fat milk are the best choices.
  • The government advises that we should eat more fish. Aim for at least two portions per week, with one of those being an oily fish like salmon or sardines.

Coeliac disease is a serious autoimmune condition where the immune system reacts to the presence of gluten in the diet. This is not the same as an allergy or an intolerance to gluten.

The immune system’s reaction damages the surface of the small intestine, disrupting the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. It is not clear what causes the immune system to react this way, although genetic make up and environmental factors appear to play a part.

There are a number of symptoms associated with coeliac disease, but not everyone reacts the same way so it is important to check with your GP.

The most common symptom is diarrhoea because the body is not able to fully absorb nutrients, but other common symptoms include:

  • bloating or stomach pain
  • flatulence and a noisy stomach
  • weight loss
  • tiredness and fatigue
  • tingling and numbness in your hands and feet
  • vomiting (usually only in children)
  • a build up of fluid that causes swelling in your arms, hands, feet and legs.

If you are suffering from any combination of these symptoms, visit your GP for a proper diagnosis. If you are found to have coeliac disease then you should be referred to a dietician. If not, be sure to ask your GP for a referral. A dietician can give you advice on how to follow a gluten-free diet, while making sure you still meet your nutritional needs.

Coeliac disease and gluten intolerance are not the only reasons you might consider avoiding wheat and gluten.

  • Wheat allergy: this occurs when the body mistakenly treats wheat as a threat and produces substances called immunoglobulin E antibodies (IgE). These trigger the release of substances in the body provoking an allergic response, such as a rash, itching and wheezing. In most cases the symptoms are immediate, beginning within seconds of exposure to wheat.
  • Wheat intolerance: most people who have an adverse reaction to wheat are either intolerant to wheat, or have coeliac disease. Wheat intolerance is not triggered by the immune system, so it cannot be diagnosed with standard tests. Common symptoms include digestive discomfort, diarrhoea and bloating, but appear more slowly and persist longer than an allergic reaction. Gluten sensitivity can vary in severity and cause similar symptoms to coeliac disease, but without damaging the small intestine.
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): this is not a specific disease, but a group of symptoms similar to the effects of coeliac disease such as bloating, abdominal cramps and diarrhoea. We don’t know exactly what causes IBS but there are some common triggers such as being stressed, eating a particular food (dairy, wheat and spicy foods have been associated with IBS) as well as hormones and some medicines. Knowing what set off your IBS will help you manage it. If you have not been previously diagnosed with IBS then you should talk to a doctor for further advice.
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