If you or someone in your family has cut out gluten, you’ll know that means a total diet rethink. HFG dietitian Brooke Longfield explains what to do and what not to do when eating the gluten-free way.
Confused about gluten? We’re not surprised! Its constant presence in the media spotlight (as A-list celebrities endlessly gush about their gluten-free lifestyles!) has sparked intense and widespread curiosity about the benefits of eating this way.
So if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, and whether you should pay attention, you’re not alone. Going gluten-free is definitely a growing health trend. Four in 10 Aussie shoppers now buy gluten-free products, mostly because they think of them as a healthier choice.
We feel it’s high time to debunk the hype and bring you the truth about gluten, so here are the facts from qualified health experts (not the Hollywood crowd!).
So what’s wrong with gluten
Contrary to what you may have heard, gluten isn’t the devil — for most of us, it’s totally harmless. Basically, gluten is a protein in wheat, barley, oats and rye. It gives foods such as bread and pasta their springy texture, and helps baked goods stay moist and fresh. Regardless of this diet trend, a small number of people do have to avoid foods that contain gluten, mainly for the following two reasons:
Around one in 70 Aussies has coeliac disease, a condition that makes its sufferers unable to digest gluten. This triggers an immune response that inflames the digestive system, among other areas of the body. The result? This inflammation damages the gut lining, making it difficult for sufferers to absorb nutrients from food.
Untreated coeliac disease can cause symptoms such as uncomfortable bloating, fatigue, excessive flatulence, nausea, vomiting and constipation or diarrhoea (or both), as well as vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The only way to treat coeliac disease and repair the intestinal lining is to banish gluten from your diet. This means cutting out all foods that contain wheat, barley, oats and rye. In time, the gut heals, symptoms ease, and as long as gluten stays off the menu, the body begins to absorb food normally again. Even a tiny amount of gluten (equivalent to 1/100th of a slice of bread) can cause gut damage in people with coeliac disease, so it’s important to avoid cross-contamination with gluten-based foods. (This might mean family members have to use separate kitchen utensils, such as chopping boards or toasters.)
Coeliac disease often goes undiagnosed; in fact, around 80 per cent of people with the disorder are unaware they have it.
About 20 per cent of us suffer from irritable-bowel syndrome (IBS), which is caused by the consumption of one or more FODMAPs, a specific group of short-chain carbohydrates. (FODMAP is an abbreviation for the scientific names of these carbs.)
Emerging research shows that IBS sufferers see improvements when they follow a low-FODMAP diet. When the body has trouble digesting one or more of these carbohydrates, they ferment in the gut, giving rise to symptoms such as stomach pain, bloating and constipation or diarrhoea.
Gluten itself isn’t a FODMAP, but there are some foods that contain gluten, such as wheat, that are also high in FODMAPs. Consequently, many people with IBS mistakenly blame gluten for their symptoms, which are actually caused by high-FODMAP foods. People who experience one or more unpleasant IBS symptoms after consuming starchy foods can start to think they have a sensitivity to gluten. However, the amount of scientific evidence supporting gluten sensitivity is small, and experts now suspect FODMAPs are the real culprits.
Allergy or intolerance?
A genuine food allergy results in obvious symptoms. Your reaction will be quick and dramatic, and you may experience skin rashes or wheezing, or both.
An intolerance is somewhat harder to identify, as symptoms can be vague and not surface for hours, or even days.
You may be interested to know that coeliac disease is neither an allergy nor an intolerance — it’s actually an autoimmune disease.
Should I go gluten free?
If you suffer from troublesome digestive symptoms, see a doctor before you eliminate gluten from your diet. He or she may advise you to have a blood test for coeliac disease. This test
cans for antibodies in the blood, but these will be present only if you’ve been eating gluten-based foods. (If you’ve already cut out gluten, you’ll need to reintroduce it to your diet before having the test.)
If you do have coeliac disease, your damaged digestive system may be failing to effectively absorb nutrients from your food. So an accurate diagnosis will help you properly manage your condition.
Are there any risks to going gluten free?
There’s a world of difference between trimming starchy pasta, pizza and cakes from your diet and cutting out all gluten-based foods. If you eradicate these foods without a diagnosis of coeliac disease, you could become deficient in certain nutrients. A gluten-free diet must be carefully managed so it isn’t lacking in fibre, as well as essential vitamins and minerals. Take care not to fall into the common trap of replacing high-fibre, gluten-based breads and cereals with highly refined carbohydrate foods, as these can constipate you and leave you feeling hungry.
If a doctor diagnoses you as having coeliac disease, remember to focus your food choices on less-processed options: Treat your body to naturally gluten-free fresh fruit and vegetables, along with lean meats, eggs, nuts, dairy foods and high-fibre gluten-free grains, such as quinoa and brown rice.
A gluten-free diet needs careful management, as unnecessarily restricting some foods can rob you of certain key nutrients
Can a gluten-free diet help me lose weight?
The words gluten free do not automatically mean healthy. Indeed, gluten-free versions of potato chips, chocolate, muffins and biscuits are no better for you than their gluten-based counterparts.
People who lose weight following a gluten-free diet usually do so because they’re forgoing high-kilojoule foods, such as cakes, biscuits, pizza and pastries. And it’s the fat and sugar in these foods, not the gluten, that makes them so unhealthy.
How can I be sure that a product is gluten free?
Thankfully, the labelling of gluten-free products is excellent in this country. If any food contains ingredients that are derived from gluten-containing grains, our laws require the packet’s ingredients list to declare them.
To make your gluten-free shop even easier, a new crossed-grain logo has just hit store shelves. Coeliac Australia endorses every product that bears this label as suitable for a gluten-free diet. For a list of approved products, visit coeliac.org.au/crossed-grain-logo.
Help! Gluten-free foods are so expensive!
Gluten-free products tend to be pricey, but become a savvy label-reader, and you’ll soon find there’s far more on offer than you first thought. Try these tips to go gluten free without going broke!
Shop beyond the health-food aisle
This section conveniently groups allergy-friendly products, but the prices can be steep. Happily, you’ll find numerous gluten-free foods in other supermarket sections. Read ingredients lists carefully, too, looking for any mention of wheat, rye, barley and oats.
Substitute rather than skip
Get creative: Use lettuce cups in place of wraps, baked potatoes as a bed for bolognese, and crushed gluten-free cereal as crunchy breadcrumbs.
Cook from scratch
With access to such a huge range of gluten-free packaged foods, you may be tempted to cut cooking corners. But bear in mind the bounty of deliciously fresh foods you can eat. Fruit, vegies, lean meat, fish, chicken, eggs, brown rice, lentils, nuts and seeds are all nutritious and naturally gluten-free foods.
Easy gluten-free dishes
Need some tasty inspiration? We’re giving you our three top gluten-free meals to make cooking and eating easier!