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What is gluten intolerance and how can it be managed?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. If you have symptoms after eating foods that contain it, such as tummy problems, could you benefit from going gluten-free?

As many as 45 per cent of people in the UK suffer from a food intolerance. A gluten-intolerance is a problem with gluten, a protein, which binds food together and is found in wheat, rye and barley. While you might expect to find gluten in bread, pasta, cereals, flour, cakes and biscuits, it also features in many processed foods such as soups, sauces and ready-meals.

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.

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.

Am I gluten intolerant?

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.

Because symptoms can be similar to those of coeliac disease, a serious autoimmune illness, it is important to get that ruled out with a blood test via your GP and, if necessary, a biopsy. Left untreated, coeliac disease can lead to serious health complications, including malnutrition and osteoporosis. About one in 100 people in the UK have coeliac disease.

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. But you’ll need to be vigilant to cut out gluten completely. You must check food packaging carefully and resist eating out if you’re not sure how the meals are made.

If you do decide to go gluten-free, you’ll find many foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, cheese and eggs, and grains such as quinoa are absolutely fine. And alongside specially made gluten-free snacks and even pasta, you can also buy gluten-free flour to help you bake your own goodies. There’s also lots of advice about how to live without gluten here. Shop our Food & Drink range.

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