Going gluten free has become on trend for many interested in health and wellness. But gluten is often misunderstood and blamed for many health issues when the research just doesn’t back it up. Here’s a look at what you should know before you go gluten free. We’re busting some of the myths about gluten, and sharing some nutrition tips about a gluten free diet. So here’s what you need to know before you go gluten free, thanks to our guest blogger Nicole from Nicole’s Nutrition Kitchen.
What is gluten?
Gluten is the name given to a protein complex found in some grains. It is a composite name representing gliadin in wheat, hordein in barley, and secalin in rye.
Oats are in a grey area when it comes to being labelled gluten-free. The current laboratory tests can only measure gliadin, hordein and secalin – not avenin (the ‘gluten’ protein complex in oats) as it is a slightly different protein. Research has shown that approximately one in five people with coeliac disease reacts to pure, uncontaminated oats. But there’s not really an easy way to know if you react to oats or not. The only way to determine a reaction is to assess gut damage is via invasive a gastroscopy/biopsy. Therefore, the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, states oats and their products are not permitted in foods that are labelled gluten free.
So in New Zealand anything containing wheat, barley, rye and oats are NOT gluten-free. Spelt is an ancient type of wheat, so this also contains gluten. Everything from breads to baked beans, breakfast cereals to tomato sauce, spice mixes to flavoured potato chips need to have their labels carefully scrutinised if you have coeliac disease and are going gluten-free. Thankfully here in New Zealand our food laws means that if anything contains any of these gluten-containing grains in any way, shape or form it must state “contains gluten” clearly on the label (usually on the back near the ingredients list). Except for beer for some reason, no labels there that mention the presence of gluten, so be aware of beer!
Why go gluten-free?
The most obvious reason is coeliac disease, which is an auto-immune disease where, in the presence of gluten the immune system gets confused and thinks that the cells of the small intestine are a dangerous and must be destroyed. That leads to damage and inflammation which causes all sorts of symptoms and other potential health issues. Symptoms range from the obvious – tummy pain and diarrhoea, and fatigue; through to other symptoms such as easy bruising, ulcerations in the mouth and skin rashes. The symptoms of coeliac disease vary considerably which can make diagnosis tricky. Health issues related with coeliac disease are anaemia (low iron levels) and osteoporosis (weakened bones) due to the damage in the gut reducing the body’s ability to absorb adequate amounts of iron and calcium.
Many people with gut symptoms related to Irritable Bowel Syndrome or non coeliac gluten sensitivity find their symptoms improve when they remove gluten from their diet. The current research suggests that this is due to FODMAPs rather than gluten. However because many gluten containing foods also contain FODMAPs, removing gluten lowers FODMAP intake therefore improving symptoms. Some people with other health conditions feel their symptoms are improved with a gluten free diet, but at the moment there isn’t sufficient evidence to recommend it as a treatment. If you do feel better without gluten, it would pay to see a qualified nutritionist or dietitian to be sure you’re getting a balanced diet and to also visit your GP first to check for coeliac disease or other health conditions.
Three good reasons NOT to go on a gluten-free diet:
- Your neighbour did and said it cured all their health problems – what works for one person doesn’t work for everyone when it comes to healthy eating.
- The word on the street is that gluten is evil and everyone should be gluten-free – not true, some people tolerate gluten perfectly well; and whole grain gluten-containing cereals contain beneficial vitamins (especially the B’s), minerals (zinc and magnesium), and fibre.
- You saw a ‘before’ and ‘after’ shot on Facebook where the friend of a friends aunty lost weight on a gluten-free diet – doesn’t mean it will make you lose weight.
If you suspect that gluten is something you should be avoiding, first get a coeliac disease test done. If you have coeliac disease, a gluten free diet isn’t something you can go on and off, it’s something that needs to be followed for life to avoid damage to your gastrointestinal system and health. You MUST have the necessary tests done BEFORE you cut out gluten in order for the tests to be accurate. The test is for the effect of the presence of gluten, so no gluten = no response, which may mean a false negative result.
How to go gluten free.
It is a good idea to focus more on what you can have than what you cannot. You can basically eat anything that doesn’t contain wheat, barley, rye and oats. That means all fresh fruit, vegetables, milk products, eggs, gluten-free grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, seafood and meat.
Read labels, and then read them again.
And next time you buy the same thing just double check. Remember that anything that contains gluten has to state it on the label. However, it doesn’t have to state that it is gluten-free.
Taking care to avoid cross-contamination, e.g. crumbs from a shared toaster or in the butter. Sometimes it can be silly little things that you do on auto-pilot, like thickening the gravy or adding soy sauce. These can be issues in a kitchen where there are both gluten and gluten-free products on the shelves, so it is worth having separate pantry shelves so you don’t get mixed up.
Gluten helps give texture to food products and also extends shelf-life – hence why bread often has gluten listed as an added ingredient – light, fluffy bread that stores well on the shelf. To replace the gluten in gluten-free products they can have added sugar and fat to help with texture. Check food labels and aim to go for mainly minimally processed gluten free foods. There’s sometimes the misunderstanding that because a product is gluten free it’s healthier, but that’s not a fact. Often one of the reasons people go gluten-free is to give their gut some love and help it heal, so it’s also important to look after it with plenty of healthy wholefoods.
Go for lots of variety in the types of flours and gluten-free grains that you use in your diet. Aim for whole grain versions as much as possible. The more whole grains (and variety), the more nutrients. Some of the gluten-free grains are not technically grains (e.g. amaranth and buckwheat), but that is a whole other post.
Going gluten-free can seem daunting, but isn’t too difficult once you know how. Just remember to focus on what you can eat rather than what you can’t. Read the labels carefully. And one of the best ways to be safe from gluten is to cook your own food, fresh and from scratch; with lots of variety.
Author: Nicole from Nicole’s Nutrition Kitchen
Nicole is a food lover, avid gardener, nutritionist and cooking coach. Once upon a time she owned a gluten-free bakery. When it came time to try something new, it still had to be food related, so Nicole headed back to University to learn about Nutrition. Now Nicole works as a Nutritionist helping people to fall in love with food by teaching simple, delicious and nutritious ways to eat for good health and well-being.