What’s all the fuss about gluten? Should you only avoid it if you have gluten allergies or intolerances, or should you avoid it regardless?
There’s a mine-field of information out there and in this fabulous article, Michelle Harris lifts the lid and tells it like it is…plus she gives us an awesome recipe for our own home-made gluten free wraps!
Article by Michelle Harris
Everywhere you look these days…its gluten free this and gluten free that. Is it just hype and the latest diet fad, or is there some real evidence to support a gluten free diet?
Your body can change very quickly
Up until I turned 30 I was fit, healthy and touted that I had a ‘cast iron stomach’. In fact on a trip to Bali in 2000 I made sure my husband had a course of probiotics, because if either of us was going to get sick, it would be him (and he did).
Then in 2005 I travelled to Thailand and Vietnam, and two things happened which resulted in me developing food intolerances. Firstly, I took Doxycycline (which is a high strength antibiotic to prevent Malaria) and secondly, I got food poisoning in Vietnam.
The amusing part is that Doxycycline is prescribed to kill off bad bacteria, so in theory I shouldn’t have got food poisoning. To cut a very long story short, after getting back from overseas I was constantly sick with bloating, diarrhoea, nausea and fatigue. Twelve months after returning, I figured out I had food intolerances. Mainly wheat (or gluten as I now know) and, to a lesser extent, dairy.
Ok, so what is gluten?
Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, triticale and oats. It’s what gives dough its elasticity, helps it to rise and keep its shape. The obvious sources of gluten can be found in bakery items such as; bread, pastries, pizza, biscuits, cakes etc.
It’s not quite so obvious when gluten powder is used as a food additive in items such as soups, ice cream, sauces, potato chips, lollies and meat products.
What are the signs you may be sensitive to gluten?
It has been estimated that there could be more than 200 different symptoms for gluten sensitivity, but the ones that most people hear about or recognise are the gastrointestinal disturbances such as:
diarrhoea and/or constipation
However there are often many more including:
bone and/or joint pain
I have a whole personal story around gluten intolerance. For me the question wasn’t very difficult. On one hand I could have bloating, gas, nausea, diarrhoea and fatigue….or, a gluten free diet.
But what if you don’t have any symptoms of food intolerances?
Why should you be bothered with a low gluten or gluten free diet? My simple answer is: often people have no idea they have a food sensitivity. In fact, people can be a-symptomatic, meaning they have NO obvious symptoms (at that point in time).
This presents a real problem, because gluten sensitivity can affect almost every part of the body, including the skin, endocrine system, stomach, brain, liver and blood vessels. Also, the more severe form of gluten sensitivity is coeliac disease which is an autoimmune disease directly caused by gluten.
Blood tests can determine the likelihood of coeliac disease, but the only definitive way to know is via an endoscopy to check for abnormal villi and inflammation in the small intestine.
People have gone for years without knowing, because symptoms are similar to other illnesses such as, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), crohn’s disease, intestinal infections, lactose intolerance and depression.
Why do people get Coeliac Disease?
Firstly, it can be genetic. Research has identified that the genes HLA DQ2 and HLA DQ8 are expressed in people with coeliac disease. It’s estimated that up to 30% of the population have this genetic predisposition and of this figure, up to 1 in 30 people will develop coeliac disease at some stage in their life.
In Australia the estimate for people who already have coeliac disease is roughly 1 in 100. More disturbing than this figure is that only 20% have been diagnosed. This equates to a huge number of people who are unaware that they actually already have coeliac disease.
Secondly, it can be lifestyle and environmental. As I mentioned previously, roughly 1 in 30 people with the coeliac gene will develop coeliac disease. The rest still may have non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) – the technical name for gluten intolerances that are not coeliac disease.
The triggers for developing coeliac disease or NCGS are broad, but generally anything that can affect the delicate balance of the gastrointestinal tract could trigger either, for example:
intestinal infections and/or illnesses (such as viral gastroenteritis and giardia)
too much gluten in the diet – processed food
contaminated gluten – chemicals used on wheat etc.
environmental factors such as genetically modified wheat grains
Other diseases linked to coeliac disease
It is quite well known that people with coeliac disease must adhere to a STRICT gluten free diet or they run the risk of developing other illness and disease, such as:
Autoimmune liver disease
Type 1 diabetes
Glomerulonephritis (kidney disease)
Psoriasis and dermatitis
Rheumatoid arthritis – exacerbated by gluten
Selective IgA deficiency
Systemic lupus erythematosus
(List sourced from MedScape)
There is also research that suggests that gluten can exacerbate psychological disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, ADHD and autism.
What about non-coeliac gluten sensitivity?
NCGS is now widely accepted as a condition and the number of people with this illness is growing rapidly. However, the verdict is still out on the exact cause of NCGS or the long-term health effects of sufferers.
Some believe that the sensitivity may be caused by something other than gluten in the grains. Others believe that it is caused from the delicate balance of the gut being compromised that leads to the sensitivity. In this case, healing the integrity of the gut may assist those sufferers.
Nonetheless, for those suffering from NCGS the effects can be debilitating, so a gluten free diet is recommended. I would further recommend a consultation with a nutritionist or naturopath to determine your gut health.
Don’t forget…coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity can happen at any stage of life!
Testing and Treatment
If you think you may be sensitive to gluten, it is really important to see your GP or other healthcare provider (e.g. Naturopath) as soon as possible. Generally the first step is a blood test to check for the associated immune responses. Do not take gluten out of your diet until after you see your healthcare provider, as the tests will be inaccurate if you do.
If these tests are positive, you can then ask for the gene test and/or be referred to a Gastroenterologist. Remember that undiagnosed coeliac disease can lead to other long-term health complications. If you don’t have CD, you may still have NCGS.
So what can I eat if I have coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity?
If you have coeliac disease you MUST follow a strict gluten free diet or you run the risks of developing other nasty diseases (as mentioned above). Your healthcare professional can help. Also Coeliac Australia and Coeliac New Zealand are great sources of information.
When I first developed gluten sensitivity 10 years ago, hardly anyone knew what it was and there wasn’t a whole section in the supermarket dedicated to it. In hindsight, I now realise that wasn’t such a bad thing because I had to make a lot of food from scratch. Nowadays you can buy just about everything gluten free, but the downside of this is that supermarket products that are gluten free aren’t always particularly healthy.
Don’t get me wrong, pre-packaged gluten free items are a good place to start if you know you have gluten intolerances, but my advice is to eventually learn to change your diet and cook at home. Why? A lot of gluten free products are made with highly processed ingredients such as white rice, corn flour, sugar and other additives and preservatives. Further, gluten-free products are often low in B vitamins, calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc, magnesium, and fibre.
When people go gluten free, the food they often really miss is fluffy ‘wheat-type’ bread. What I really missed was wraps. Pre-packaged gluten free wraps tend to be dry and resemble cardboard. So here is my recipe for gluten free buckwheat wraps. They are soft and delicious; a little like a crepe. Even my 4 year old son loves them!
Gluten Free Buckwheat Wraps
200 g buckwheat flour (or 100g buckwheat flour & 100g brown rice flour)
2 tbs arrowroot flour
400ml milk or milk alternative (you could use rice or almond milk)
1 tbs dried herbs of choice (I used parsley on this occasion, but I think rosemary or thyme would also be nice)
1 tsp garlic powder
Pinch sea salt
Oil for cooking (e.g. coconut, macadamia nut or avocado oil are good choices)
Combine buckwheat, arrowroot, garlic powder, salt and herbs in a bowl.
Add in milk and whisk to until it resembles a crepe-like consistency (fairly runny).
Put pan on medium heat and add oil.
Pour the batter into the pan and swivel pan around so that it covers the bottom of the pan in a thin layer. I use a jug to pour the batter into the pan as I find it easier.
Cook for about one minute on each side. Flip with a spatula. Don’t overcook as they get too hard.
Cool on paper towel or a rack.
Can be stored in the fridge for up to 3 days – if they last that long! Enjoy!
Check out this Ted X clip about gluten: