Coeliac Disease: What Is A Gluten Free Diet Really About?
YOU might have noticed the growing amount of labels claiming a certain product is ‘gluten-free’ or maybe even know people that suddenly won’t eat bread or pasta anymore. The issues around gluten and cutting out foods that contain them are becoming more and more frequent but many people are left confused or thinking we’re talking about the latest diet and nutrition fad – while it is actually a serious health matter for the many concerned.
First of all, what exactly is this mysterious ‘gluten’ actually? It’s a protein found mainly in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. The clue to what it does is in the name since gluten is the Latin word for glue. It’s the stuff that makes dough stick together, keep its form while rising in the baking process so it results in both the chewiness and fluffiness of baked goods. It doesn’t just occur in breads, cakes, pasta or other foods made from wheat flour but also in beer and many cereals as they are made from gluten-containing grains. Gluten can even be found in many other less obvious foods where it is used as part of food additives, preservatives and thickening agents: salad dressings, gravy, sauces and any seasoned foods like crisps or processed lunch meats, as well as many soups. Sometimes it can be very difficult to tell if a certain food or product contains gluten or not and for most of us, this doesn’t make much of a difference. The problem starts when you’re suffering from coeliac disease or a gluten intolerance, which are quite different from each other but can both treated with a change of diet to gluten-free.
Coeliac disease is an auto-immune disease where you don’t react to the gluten directly as your body isn’t naturally immune to it like everyone else. Instead consumption of gluten results in antibodies or white blood cells, attacking the lining of your small intestine and causing inflammation. The main symptoms such as stomach pains, cramps, nausea, bloating, diarrhoea or constipation are similar to the ones of gluten sensitivity but you can be tested for coeliac disease through a biopsy.
Gluten intolerance or sensitivity is tricky as it is hard to pinpoint. It also results in the inflammation of the small intestine as a reaction to ingesting gluten protein but there are currently no definitive tests to diagnose you with gluten intolerance nor a defined range of symptoms. Since the gluten protein itself is made up from several parts, researchers are still trying to figure out what exactly causes reactions in people who are tested negative for coeliac disease or if the symptoms are even caused by other particles found in grains and wheat other than gluten.
There’s no cure for coeliac disease nor for gluten intolerance but cutting out gluten usually helps to reduce the symptoms to a minimum. While these symptoms vary from person to person, they aren’t usually something you brush off lightly. Ailbhe Nic Cába, one of our writers, recalls discovering her gluten intolerance: “Approximately four months ago I noticed a significant pain in my upper stomach that would travel to my chest and back and queasiness after eating. I started to keep a food diary to see what foods were causing the pain and a pattern soon emerged pointing to wheat foods as the culprits.” She also recalls feelings of fullness after eating the tiniest amount of food despite being ravenous just before eating, getting migraines and even nerve pain in her face. She went to see her doctor for a blood test and was advised to continue with the elimination of gluten-containing foods and if overall improvements noticeably continued, Ailbhe could consider herself gluten intolerant. That her doctor emphasised that this was not common or best practise, which really shows how difficult it is to recognise, pinpoint or properly diagnose gluten intolerances.
“The biggest transition is being strident in checking labels and creating awareness at home, separating gluten-free foods from ordinary food to avoid cross-contamination, as well as enjoying the lighter taste of gluten-free pasta, pizza and bread!”, says Ailbhe and advises that “when eating out don’t be afraid to ask restaurants if they can cater for your sensitivity or intolerance. After an initial glance at menus it often seems like there are very limited options available but as soon as I ask, most establishments have been brilliant in offering suggestions as to what they can do to cater for my dietary requirement without having to change my order.” Still, it is easier to maintain a gluten-free diet at home as awareness and catering options with restaurants generally still seems to be behind in comparison to how widespread the intolerance is in Ireland.
How necessary it is to watch those dietary requirements becomes clear when Ailbhe recounts the consequences of accidentally eating gluten: “I’ve had two occasions since I began a gluten-free diet when I somehow digested gluten, and boy, did I know about it! The pain was pretty immediate, as was a feeling of fullness, migraine and nausea.” So for anyone suffering from gluten intolerance or coeliac disease, it is really important to know where gluten could be lurking. Thankfully, awareness is increasing so you can find more and more products with labelling either warning of gluten or specifying that they’re gluten-free. There is now a fairly wide range of products designed specifically for a gluten-free diet, such as gluten-free flour, pasta, bread and biscuits you can find in health shops and more and more supermarkets.
Yet ironically, this has also led to misunderstandings in the wider public of seeing gluten-free products simply as the newest health craze and it-diet as well as making gluten-free products a huge and rising market that many are trying to tap into. I’ve recently seen a shampoo labelled brightly to be gluten-free. This is clearly cashing in on the trend and has very little to do with coeliac disease and gluten intolerances. If you know the first thing about them, you also know that a reaction is caused by ingesting gluten – so unless you eat your shampoo or clean your teeth with it (neither being very advisable from a health perspective), it doesn’t matter whether it contains gluten or not. Or if you do show a reaction to certain hair and skin-care products, it is probably caused by a different type of allergy and you should see your doctor.
A gluten-free lifestyle is often mislabelled as one of the new diet fads or thrown together with dietary preferences or ethical choices like vegetarian or vegan lifestyles while it actually caters to a specific group of people with dietary requirements and doesn’t really have much to offer to people without these. Going gluten-free might make you feel better even if you didn’t have any symptoms of coeliac disease or gluten intolerance because it involves eating less processed foods and more fresh fruit and vegetables, which we should all do anyhow. But apart from that it might even damage your health. Many flour and grain products are enriched with nutrients and vitamins such as iron, calcium and fibre that you might not get enough of otherwise so watch out for a well-balanced diet.
The transition to a gluten-free diet definitely worked out for Ailbhe: “While it can be cumbersome sometimes not being able to eat whatever you want without thinking twice, the thoughts of the pain you suffer is enough to keep you on track.” Apart from no more pain after eating, she also saw her skin improve after she shrugged off the problems as a bad-case PMS for years and even got many compliments on supposed weight loss recently which she traced to the lack of bloating now that she no longer ingests gluten.
If you suffer from similar symptoms, it is always best to see your GP and talk to them about it. Additionally, you can keep a food diary and then cut out gluten-containing foods to see if your condition improves. For more information you can head over to the Coeliac Society of Ireland.
Photos c/o friendshipcircle.org, newcures.info, becomegorgeous.com