If you always feel tired, have been losing weight, and are suffering with abdominal pain and/or diarrhoea, gluten could be the culprit.
What is gluten?
There is more gluten in our diets than ever before. This glue-like protein, found in wheat, rye, oats and barley, ‘holds’ food products, such as bread, together.
Because we’re eating more refined wheat products, such as white bread and pasta, than we used to, this increases the amount of gluten we consume. But this protein may be harming your health.
What is an intolerance?
Food intolerance is more common than food allergy – although it can be harder to recognise and diagnose. This is because food intolerance symptoms are often delayed, striking several hours after you have eaten the food that you are intolerant of. Symptoms may also appear only if you eat a lot of the food you are intolerant of – or if you eat that food very often. In fact, people who are intolerant of a particular food can sometimes eat a small quantity of that food without any symptoms at all. Another barrier to correctly identifying food intolerance is that some people have problems with more than one type of food – gluten-based and dairy foods for example.
How is intolerance different to an allergy?
By comparison, food allergy symptoms are immediate and potentially serious. An allergic reaction to food by your immune system will trigger allergy symptoms such as a rash and itching but can also cause difficulty swallowing, abdominal pain and anaphylaxis, which is an extreme and severe allergic reaction.
Do I have gluten intolerance?
Symptoms of food intolerance can be varied and seem unrelated – and not everyone will have the same ones. They can include tummy problems such as reflux, wind, diarrhoea, vomiting, bloating and an irritable bowel. Others might have difficulty breathing, with a tight chest or shortness of breath. Some people also experience headaches, fatigue, joint pain, night sweats and skin complaints such as rashes, swelling and eczema.
To really understand how your body reacts to the gluten in everyday food – and if the symptoms you are experiencing are connected to gluten – experts advise keeping a clear food and symptoms diary, while following a food exclusion diet. The pattern and type of symptoms you record can help to distinguish food intolerance from food allergy reactions.
Could it be coeliac disease?
One in 100 people are now diagnosed with coeliac disease, which is much more common than previously thought, while thousands more could have it and not realise.
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition. When sufferers eat gluten, the immune system overreacts and damages the finger-like protrusions in the small intestine called villi that help absorb nutrients. This can cause symptoms such as severe gut pain, weight loss and fatigue. Left untreated, coeliac disease can lead to serious health complications including malnutrition and osteoporosis.
But you don’t have to have coeliac disease to develop symptoms from eating gluten. People who have a gluten intolerance or are sensitive to gluten can experience problems including abdominal pain, diarrhoea, fatigue and headaches.
If you experience symptoms when eating foods that contain gluten, it’s important to first rule out coeliac disease. Ask your GP for tests including a blood test and a small bowel biopsy. Remember, you need to keep eating gluten during this time in order for the results to be accurate.
How do I live gluten-free?
If you or a family member has gluten intolerance or has been diagnosed with coeliac disease, you’ll need to avoid or eliminate gluten from your diet.
The only way to live symptom-free from coeliac disease or gluten intolerance is to avoid foods with gluten for life. Lots of healthy, nutritious food is naturally gluten-free – for example, meat (but not if it’s covered in breadcrumbs), fish, fruit and vegetables, most milk and cheese products (but check ice-cream and blue cheese), nuts, seeds and some grains (e.g., rice and quinoa). Generally speaking, the plainer the food, the less likely it is to have any gluten on it or in it.
Most ready-meals, snacks and cereals contain gluten. In the UK and the EU, labels on all packaged foods are required to contain allergen information. If you eat food that has been processed or packaged in any way, you’ll need to become familiar with food labels.
The easiest thing to do is look for a ‘gluten-free’ label on food but, to allow you to eat a wider selection of food, you should learn which common ingredients contain gluten. Manufacturers change ingredients often, so check the label every time you shop to make sure no ingredients that may contain gluten have been added. You may even find gluten in medicines, lip balms and vitamins.
If you’re eating out, you’ll need to ask questions, even about the ingredients in spice blends. Breaded items, or sauces made with flour, will probably be out and, unless the restaurant or venue has two fryers to avoid cross-contamination, you won’t be able to order deep-fried food. You can ask if there’s a gluten-free menu or dishes. Supermarkets may also have a list of gluten-free products available. To avoid gluten altogether, remember that preparation areas and appliances must also be gluten-free. In your kitchen you’ll need a separate toaster (or toaster bags), boards and utensils.
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