Updated: Feb 25
Until less than a decade ago, we were footloose and fancy free when it came to wheat and gluten- no-one gave it a second thought. Nowadays however, the fast emerging interest in the gluten-free (GF) diet means that sales of GF products are worth billions and restaurant menus and supermarket shelves are proudly stacked to the rim with the ‘gluten-free’ label. It seems everyone and their dog are jumping on the bandwagon. But before you chow-down on your cardboard-esque gluten-free bread, here the lowdown…
Gluten - What's the problem?
Gluten is a type of protein found in cereals, grains and breads made from wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and kamut. There are various disorders associated with gluten, such as celiac disease (a serious autoimmune disease whereby one must strictly avoid gluten) and wheat allergies (whereby an individual may experience a sudden reaction to wheat products, such as asthma or anaphylaxis).
However, the new kid on the block is ‘non-celiac gluten sensitivity’ (NCGS) – a condition that is starting to become recognised by health experts as a distinct clinical condition, as suggested by many well designed placebo controlled studies such as this one1.
NCGS can cause digestive symptoms that are very similar to IBS such as diarrhoea, constipation, wind, bloating, heart-burn and pain after eating. In addition, non-digestive complaints can be a sign of gluten sensitivity, which can even exist without any accompanying digestive issues. These include emotional and mental symptoms such as anxiety, depression and brain fuzziness, as well as general fatigue and aches and pains.
William Davis, a cardiologist and author of the book ‘Wheat Belly’, takes this a step further and asserts that gluten can be blamed for everything from arthritis and asthma to multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia – although in my opinion there seems to be a great need for well-designed research to support these claims.
Do you have a gluten sensitivity?
Unfortunately there is no diagnostic test for NCGS – if celiac disease and a wheat allergy have been ruled out, then the best way to determine if you have a gluten sensitivity is to simply eliminate it completely from your diet for 3 weeks (you may start to notice that you feel better within the first week) (Study here). During this period, you could substitute your usual gluten-laden foods with alternatives such as regular and wild rice, buckwheat, quinoa, corn, millet, oats (some oats contain small traces of gluten which should have very little effect unless you have celiac disease). After 3 weeks, you can start to slowly reintroduce it to see if it triggers any symptoms, and voila – you’ve got your answer!
Gone gluten free and still feel scrummy?
Some folks find that while their symptoms may vastly improve by eliminating gluten from their diet, their digestion may still not be on tip-top form. This may mean you have sensitivity to certain carbohydrates known as FODMAPS (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) (Study here). Although the FODMAP diet is pretty intense, it may mean you are getting to the root cause of your troubles once and for all, hallelujah! If you feel this is something you want to explore more, nerd up on the subject in more depth or visit a qualified nutritional therapist for some inspiration and education on the subject.
NCGS is fast becoming an accepted clinical condition in the spectrum of gluten related disorders. Apologies for the pun, but you must trust your gut on this one. If you eat gluten and have any of the above symptoms, consider eliminating it for a trial.
However, since gluten containing foods can typically contribute a wide variety of nutrients to your diet (i.e. complex carbohydrates, B-vitamins, fibre and minerals), therefore it’s vital to ensure that you are getting adequate nutrients elsewhere in your diet.
Good luck with your journey! I love to hear from you so do keep in touch via the comments below,