Learning that you need to give up gluten can be stressful, but once you adjust to your new way of eating, you’ll find it easier and easier – and in many cases you’ll start to feel better quite quickly too.
What is gluten & why should I avoid it?
Gluten is a family of proteins that is found in wheat, barley, oats and rye, as well as related grains such as kamut and spelt. One reason to give up gluten is to manage coeliac disease, a condition in which an immune system reaction to gluten damages the tiny hairs called villi that line the small intestine.
These villi aid the absorption of nutrients from the intestines into the bloodstream, and are unable to completely perform this function when damaged, so an affected person may become malnourished, lose weight, and/or develop deficiencies of essential nutrients like iron and zinc. Other symptoms that may occur in coeliac disease include diarrhoea, steatorrhoea (fatty stools), flatulence and abdominal pain. Coeliac disease requires medical diagnosis, usually via a combination of blood tests and intestinal biopsy.
Once diagnosed, your condition should be managed through the advice and guidance of a specialised healthcare professional. Even if you don’t have medically diagnosed coeliac disease, your healthcare professional may advise you to follow a gluten-free diet if you have, or are suspected of having, food sensitivities or allergies to gluten or gluten-containing grains.
Managing Coeliac Disease
If you’ve been diagnosed with coeliac disease, you’ll need to strictly follow a gluten-free diet for the rest of your life, as even a small amount of gluten can damage the villi and trigger digestion and absorption problems. The good news is that the villi start to repair themselves fairly quickly after you stop consuming gluten, so in most cases, you can expect to start noticing improvements in your health a few days or weeks after adopting a strict gluten-free diet.
Should there be no response within this timeframe, consult your healthcare professional, who can help to determine whether your diet contains hidden sources of gluten and whether any additional health issues need addressing.
To make the switch to a gluten-free diet, strictly avoid wheat, barley, oats, rye, kamut and spelt – and any products made from these foods. Get into the habit of reading the ingredients list of everything you eat, and reject any foods or medicines that carry the allergy warning ‘Contains gluten’.
Many ingredients in processed foods are derived from grains, even if their names don’t reflect that, so be particularly careful to avoid foods containing flour, starch and soy sauce. Ask your healthcare professional to provide you with a definitive list of other ingredients to avoid.
You can purchase many gluten-free products from your local supermarket or health food store, but one of the best ways to avoid gluten is to prepare your own food from gluten-free ingredients. There are numerous gluten-free cookbooks available and the recipes they contain can be surprisingly delicious, so take up cooking and you’ll soon discover that living without gluten doesn't need to be that difficult after all!