Gluten-free products have been around for years but what once was a niche market has become mainstream with an array of products available in supermarkets and restaurants throughout the UK. It is now not only followed by people with a diagnosed medical condition but considered healthier than conventional products by the general public. Since the subject matter affected my own family, I did a lot of research on the pros & cons of a gluten-free diet by looking at current research, when it makes sense to cut it out and would also like to share our own experience of embracing a gluten-free diet.
Years ago my husbands’ gastroenterologist suggested to him to cut out gluten even though that his test results on coeliac disease (more about his later) were negative. Unfortunately, he did not listen to this advice and continued to suffer from digestive issues. Eventually, I managed to convince him to give it a try and the results were almost instant. It was incredible to witness the transformation, his tummy did not expand as previously after meals and he had no discomforts after eating anymore. Every time he cheated, he encountered the exact same issues as before the diet – he is now on a completely gluten-free diet for almost a year and very happy that he made the change!
Does this mean a gluten-free diet is good for everyone? It seems that there is a trend and belief that free-from (incl. gluten-free) products are healthier for you but before you start cutting out gluten from your diet let me go a bit deeper into the subject and answer a few questions you might have about this diet.
What is gluten?
Gluten refers to the proteins found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. It acts like a glue that holds food together, it gives baking its structure and is responsible for the beautiful chewiness of bread.
Is gluten bad?
Gluten is only bad for people with certain conditions like coeliac disease, an autoimmune disorder where the body’s reaction to gluten causes damage to the lining of the intestine. Only 1 in 100 people in the UK are affected by coeliac disease according to the NHS. However, there is new research on non-coeliac gluten-sensitivity (NCGS) which has similar symptoms to coeliac disease. How many people are affected by NCGS is not clear yet and a lot more research is needed. It is also believed that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common chronic disorder that affects the large intestine, is affected by gluten. Unfortunately, there is no test for either NCGS nor IBS.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of coeliac disease, NCGS and IBS are very similar ranging from diarrhoea, abdominal pain, bloating & indigestion to name just a few which makes it difficult to get the right diagnosis.
What should I do if I have any of these symptoms?
It is important to see a health professional if you have any of these symptoms rather than to self-diagnose. A GP might refer you to a gastroenterologist or dietician to investigate further and what helped us a lot was writing a food diary. As there is no test for NCGS or IBS, it can be challenging to get the right diagnosis and takes time to investigate. If you have coeliac disease or NCGS you’ll most likely get the advice to follow a gluten-free diet while people with IBS seem to find the low FODMAP diet (gluten-free is part of this diet as well) helpful which is best undertaken under the guidance of a professional dietician. The title ‘dietitian’ is protected under UK law unlike that of the title ‘nutritionist’ so be careful whose advice you buy and make sure they have proper credentials and are registered if you seek advice in the private sector.
Is a gluten-free diet healthy in general or can it even be bad for you?
There are claims and popular beliefs that are currently spreading on social media and the internet that a gluten-free diet has health benefits in general, however, there is not enough scientific evidence so far to underpin these claims according to the Mayo Clinic. Contrary to many beliefs, a gluten-free diet has even a few risks associated with it. By cutting out gluten which is also in whole-grain bread, we cut out good nutrients that are beneficial to our health such as vitamins, fibre etc. And a research from Harvard University even found a link between gluten-free diets and type 2 diabetes. Gluten-free products are not necessarily healthier than their wheat-based counterparts as they often have a higher sugar and fat content as well as artificial additives and e-numbers (especially in bread at supermarkets). That said, there are fantastic and healthy products out there and if you have to go on a gluten-free diet because of a medical condition there are still ways to a well-balanced diet, it just takes a little more effort.
Gluten-free, just a trend?
While the change to a gluten-free diet transformed my husband’s life, it seems that the demand for gluten-free products widened beyond medical needs with people jumping on the ‘free-from’ bandwagon as a lifestyle choice rather due to diagnosed medical conditions. I have recently read the book ‘The Angry Chef’ by Anthony Warner who does shed light on where food trends come from and how they develop – a rather interesting read. While I am not per se on a gluten-free diet I am not cooking separate meals for myself and have not observed any health benefits for myself by eating less gluten. However, if you suspect that you have a food intolerance or coeliac disease it is very important that you check it out.
Diagnosed with a medical condition that prevents you from eating gluten – what now?
Thankfully nowadays food intolerances are recognised and people can get plenty of help and support with lots of books, blogs and websites on the subject. It is also incredible how many gluten-free products and alternatives are available everywhere including restaurants, just make sure to read the labels before you buy to avoid too many artificial additives etc. and to get the nutrients that you cut out from other foods. It takes a little time and experimenting in the kitchen to create delicious alternatives but after a year of gluten-free cooking and baking, I have managed to find wonderful products from gluten-free pasta made from lentils, quinoa, buckwheat to healthy flour alternatives which helped me create a few fantastic recipes that I am going to share with you. They are not only for people on a gluten-free diet (I wouldn’t want to miss my gluten-free waffles I make on weekends anymore – recipe coming soon) but any foodie.
It was and is fun to make gluten-free work for ‘us’ and nice to experiment with different ingredients to create a well-balanced diet that is enjoyed by the whole family. I very much hope this post will help people who are wondering whether a gluten-free diet is for them.