WHAT IS A GLUTEN FREE DIET?

What Is A Gluten Free Diet

A gluten free diet means excluding foods that contain gluten. Gluten is a protein found in many grains such as wheat, barley and rye. People with conditions like coeliac disease, gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergy must follow this diet.

This article sets out why understanding a gluten free diet is vital, especially in the case of those with specific health conditions, as well as information about coeliac disease, gluten intolerance, and the role of a gluten free diet in managing these conditions. 

Also covered will be the reasons for following a gluten free diet, which foods to include and avoid, and how to navigate the challenges that come with such a diet. 

By understanding these topics, you can make informed food choices and potentially improve your health, being equipped to make dietary changes, read food labels more effectively, and select gluten free products with confidence.

Table of Contents

What is a Gluten Free Diet?

A gluten free diet is a diet that excludes the protein gluten, which is found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and also a type of wheat starch called triticale. 

This diet is essential for managing symptoms and improving the health of those with coeliac disease, non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergy. 

Gluten can cause inflammation in the small intestines of people with coeliac disease, leading to symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and sometimes severe weight loss. 

According to Coeliac UK, around 1 in 100 people in the UK have coeliac disease, but only 30% of those are diagnosed. 

A gluten free diet does not just involve avoiding bread or pasta, but also many processed foods such as breakfast cereals, baked goods, and some types of soy sauce, all of which  contain gluten. 

Even a small amount of gluten can cause symptoms for those with coeliac disease, and gluten is often hidden in unexpected places, so it is crucial to read food labels carefully.

There are many food options that are naturally gluten free, however. These include fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, rice, corn, potatoes, and beans. 

Gluten free bread, brown rice, quinoa, and gluten free oats are examples of grains and starches that can make up part of a gluten free diet.

However, it is still essential to maintain a balanced diet; a food being labelled as gluten free does not mean that it is healthy, as some gluten free products are  high in sugar and fat. It is important to consider the overall nutritional content of the food, not just its gluten status. 

Gluten free food is also often lower in fibre, so some people may experience nutritional deficiencies when switching to a gluten free diet. It is therefore recommended to consult a registered dietitian before starting a gluten free diet in order to ensure all nutritional needs are met.

Reasons to Follow a Gluten Free Diet

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, coeliac disease is a condition affecting 1% of the global population, and a diagnosis of this  disease is the primary reason to follow a gluten free diet.

In  individuals suffering from coeliac disease, the consumption of gluten triggers an immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine. This can lead to various symptoms, including diarrhoea, abdominal pain, bloating, and fatigue, and to serious health complications over time. 

Having non-coeliac sensitivity is another reason to follow a gluten free diet. While this condition shares many of the same uncomfortable symptoms with coeliac disease, like bloating, abdominal pain, and fatigue, it does not cause the same intestinal damage.

A gluten free diet also benefits people with a wheat allergy, where all wheat products, not just those containing gluten, must be avoided. Symptoms of a wheat allergy can range from mild, such as hives, to severe, such as anaphylaxis.

Some people choose to follow a gluten free diet for perceived health benefits, due to there being some evidence that a gluten free diet can aid in weight loss and improve health markers, but more research is needed in this area. 

A gluten free diet is not medically necessary for people without coeliac disease, non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergy, and it offers no actual proven benefits for these individuals.

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Foods to Include in a Gluten Free Diet

Despite popular belief, gluten free diets don’t have to be restrictive. There are plenty of nutritious and delicious foods that are naturally free from gluten, including fresh fruits and vegetables, unprocessed meat and fish, eggs, and dairy products. 

Mostdrinks, such as water, tea, coffee, and most alcoholic beverages, are gluten free, although beer, lagers, ales, and stout contain gluten unless specified otherwise.

A variety of grains and starches, such as corn, rice, potatoes, and quinoa, are still able to be included in a gluten free diet.

Gluten free oats and products that consist of the, such as porridge and granola, can also be included, but it is always essential to choose oats that are certified gluten free due to the possibility of regular oats becoming with gluten during growth or processing.

Packaged foods can be more of a challenge when following a gluten free diet, because gluten is often used as a filler in many processed foods such as soups, sauces, and ready meals. 

In the UK, foods labelled as ‘gluten free’ must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, according to Food Safety Authority regulations.

Living with Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity

Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity is a condition with symptoms similar to coeliac disease, but which does not involve the same type of damage to the small intestine. 

People with this condition may experience symptoms like bloating, stomach pain, and tiredness, symptoms that can be reduced or even eliminated with a gluten-free diet. 

As mentioned, reading food labels is critical when maintaining this diet as processed foods often contain gluten and it can be hidden in unexpected places, such as in malt vinegar, sweets, salad dressings, certain types of oats, and even various medications. 

By understanding what to look for on a food label, those with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity can make informed choices and avoid triggers for their symptoms.

Challenges and Solutions of a Gluten Free Diet

Challenges and Solutions of a Gluten Free Diet

Following a gluten free diet can present some challenges given that gluten is a common ingredient in many foods, and can be difficult to avoid. However, these challenges can be overcome with careful planning and preparation.

One challenge is ensuring that your diet remains nutritionally balanced. Gluten free foods can be lower in certain nutrients, such as B vitamins and fibre, so it is important to include a variety of foods in your diet to ensure you get all the nutrients that you require. 

Whole foods, like fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, and dairy, are naturally gluten-free and rich in essential nutrients, and by making these foods the focus of your diet, you can ensure you’re getting the nutrients you need while avoiding gluten. 

Seeking consultation from a registered dietitian can be beneficial in helping you to plan a balanced gluten free diet.

Another challenge is the risk of cross-contamination. Gluten can be found in many places, from shared kitchen utensils to the toaster, making it important to have separate cooking and preparation areas if you have a high sensitivity to gluten.

Eating out can also be a challenge, although many restaurants now offer gluten free options, and some have separate menus for those following a gluten free diet. Calling ahead to check what options are available is always a good idea.

A gluten free diet is not a quick fix for weight loss or other health issues, but a medical diet necessary for those with coeliac disease, gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergy. 

If you do not suffer from these conditions but are considering a gluten free diet for other health reasons, it’s best to consult a healthcare professional before taking any action.

"A gluten free diet is a diet that excludes the protein gluten, which is found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and also a type of wheat starch called triticale."

Assessing the Benefits and Drawbacks of a Gluten Free Diet

While a gluten-free diet is a necessity for those with certain medical conditions, it’s vital to understand the implications fully, whether you’re considering it for health reasons or lifestyle choices.

Pros of a Gluten Free Diet

1) Improvement in Digestive Health

– For those with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, a gluten free diet can significantly improve digestive health; symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain can be reduced or even eliminated.

– The diet can also help to heal damage in the small intestine caused by coeliac disease over time, and with strict adherence, individuals may see a reduction in related complications.

2) Potential for Reduced Risk of Certain Autoimmune Diseases

– For people with coeliac disease, sticking to a gluten free diet may help to reduce the risk of developing other autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes and autoimmune liver disease.

– This is particularly important for children who are diagnosed at an early age, in order to implement preventative measures as soon as possible.

Alleviation of Dermatitis Herpetiformis Symptoms

3) Alleviation of Dermatitis Herpetiformis Symptoms

   – Dermatitis herpetiformis is a skin condition linked with gluten intolerance which can be effectively managed with a gluten free diet. 

   – Following the diet can help to clear related skin rashes and prevent them from returning.  

4) Better Absorption of Nutrients

   – The absorption of essential nutrients is often impaired when the small intestine is damaged by coeliac disease.

   – Following a gluten free diet can allow the gut to heal, causing better nutrient absorption.

5) Increased Energy Levels

   – Many people who suffer from untreated coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity experience fatigue; a gluten free diet can help to improve these energy levels. 

   – As the body begins to absorb more nutrients, energy levels will increase significantly.

Cons of a Gluten Free Diet

1) Risk of Nutritional Deficiencies

   – Gluten free foods are often lower in certain nutrients, such as  B vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and fibre.

   – Planning your diet carefully is important, as is considering taking dietary supplements to avoid deficiencies.

2) Higher Grocery Costs

   – Gluten-free products are often more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts, resulting in higher grocery costs that can be a significant barrier for those considering the diet.

3) Difficulty Finding Suitable Foods

   – Although more gluten free products are becoming more readily available, finding suitable foods can still be challenging.

   – Many processed foods contain gluten, and it can sometimes be hidden in unexpected places, which makes it difficult to maintain a strict gluten free diet.

4) Risk of Cross-Contamination

   – Cross-contamination can occur when gluten free foods come into contact with foods containing gluten.

   – This can occur at various stages, such as during the manufacturing process, or at home if foods are prepared on common surfaces or with shared utensils.

5) Potential Impact on Social Life

   – Eating out or attending social gatherings can be challenging when you are following a strict gluten free diet.

   – You may need to plan ahead, bring your own food, or ensure the host is aware of your dietary restrictions and the consequences that come with deviating from them.

Identifying Gluten in Food Labels

Food labels are a valuable tool for those following a gluten-free diet, although understanding them can be tricky. 

As gluten is often used as a filler or a binder in processed foods, it can be found in wheat flour, a common ingredient in many foods, along with the other less obvious places. It is therefore important to look out for any mention of these grains or their derivatives on food labels.

In the UK, any food containing more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten cannot be labelled as ‘gluten-free’. 

This means that foods labelled as ‘gluten-free’ or ‘suitable for coeliacs’ should be safe for most people with gluten sensitivity or coeliac disease to eat, but some people may react to even smaller amounts of gluten. 

In the event of uncertainty it is always best to consult with a healthcare professional.

It’s also important to remember that ‘wheat-free’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘gluten-free’, as whilst  wheat is one of the main sources of gluten, it is not the only one. 

Foods can be wheat-free but still contain gluten from other sources, such as barley or rye, so always look for ‘gluten-free’ on the label.

The Role of Vitamin D in a Gluten-Free Diet

A gluten-free diet can sometimes lead to a deficiency in certain nutrients, one being vitamin D, which is crucial for good bone health. Grains containing gluten are often fortified with vitamins such as this, and by avoiding these foods you risk missing out on this important nutrient.

Vitamin D is found in few foods, but some of the best sources include oily fish, red meat, and egg yolks, or some types of margarine and breakfast cereals. However, many people in the UK don’t get enough vitamin D from food alone, especially in the winter months when the sun isn’t strong enough for our bodies to make vitamin D.

If you’re following a gluten-free diet, it’s particularly important to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D. 

In the winter months especially, taking supplements may be a good course of action but it is best to discuss this with a healthcare professional, who can give you personalised advice. 

While a gluten-free diet can help manage symptoms of conditions like coeliac disease and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, it is vital to ensure that the diet remains balanced and nutritionally complete.

The Role of Vitamin D in a Gluten-Free Diet

A Case Study on Living with Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity and a Gluten Free Diet

This UK-based case study will better illustrate the realities of living with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and following a gluten free diet, helping to bring the topic to life and provide a real-world context.

Jane is a 35-year-old teacher from Birmingham, recently diagnosed with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity after experiencing symptoms such as bloating, tiredness, and frequent headaches. Her doctor suggested trialling a gluten-free diet to see if it eased her symptoms.

Jane began by eliminating obvious sources of gluten, such as bread and pasta, replacing these with gluten free products, but continued to experience symptoms. 

After some research, Jane realised that gluten can be hidden in many processed foods including some of her favourites, such as certain sauces and ready meals.

Jane began to read food labels more carefully, learning to look for grains and ingredients that contain gluten such as wheat flour. This process was effective but time-consuming, and she also had to be careful with cross-contamination in her kitchen. 

Jane began to use separate utensils for her food and cleaned surfaces thoroughly before preparing her meals.

Eating out presented another challenge, in that Jane needed to carefully review menus and ask staff in detail about ingredients. However, she noticed that more and more restaurants were offering gluten-free options.

Despite these challenges, Jane noticed a significant improvement in her symptoms after several months on a gluten free diet, finding that she had more energy and improved digestive issues. Jane also discovered new foods she enjoyed, such as quinoa and gluten free oats.

Jane’s story is just one example of living with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and following a gluten free diet. It’s a journey that requires careful planning and awareness, but the benefits for those with a sensitivity to gluten can be life-changing.

Key Takeaways and Learnings

This summary of the key aspects and implications of a gluten-free diet should help to consolidate your understanding of the topic and highlight any actions you may need to take.

– A gluten-free diet involves avoiding all foods and products containing the protein gluten, found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye.

– This diet is essential for individuals with coeliac disease, non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergy, as it can help to manage symptoms and improve overall health.

– Following a gluten free diet requires careful reading of food labels, because gluten can be hidden in many processed foods and ingredients.

– The diet can pose challenges such as risk of nutritional deficiencies and higher food costs, but these can be managed with careful planning and consultation with a healthcare professional.

– Many foods are naturally gluten free, including fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products; these should form the basis of a balanced gluten-free diet.

This article has explored the ins and outs of a gluten-free diet, from understanding what this means to recognising the benefits and potential drawbacks, as well as the reasons why some people need to follow this diet and which foods are appropriate to consume.

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