By WLR Nutritionist Contributor Abby Campbell BSc, SFN, SSN, CPT
What’s wrong with gluten, who might it affect, and how do you go gluten free? Nutritionist Abby Campbell takes a look at the facts and theories, and gives her tips and a 7-day diet plan for going gluten free.
First of all, it almost goes without saying that if you have symptoms you suspect are related to gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergy, you should see your GP. There are dangers in self-diagnosing, not least of which is that you may mistake your symptoms for something else that needs medical attention.
Having said that, I can relate to people who have difficulty losing weight by conventional means. After having my second baby years ago, I tried desperately to lose the extra 30 pounds that were hanging around my mid-section and thighs to no avail!
It took several years to learn that I had an intolerance to gluten – an unfavorable physical condition in the gut due to undigested gluten proteins. Unfortunately, a bad microbiome (gut health) can lead to other health problems such as weight gain and difficulty losing weight.1/2
What Exactly is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein composite that is naturally found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and triticale – as well as their derivatives. Acting as a glue that holds food together, gluten helps foods maintain their shape.
This glue is what gives bread its chewy texture and allows pizza chefs to toss and twirl dough into the air without it falling apart.
As one of the most heavily consumed proteins in the world, gluten is commonly found in the following foods:
- Wheat Products – breads, baked goods, cereals, pastas, soups, sauces and marinades, salad dressings, and roux.
- Barley Products – malted foods (flours, milk and milkshakes, extracts, syrup, flavoring, vinegars, beers), soups, and sauces.
- Rye Products – rye and pumpernickel breads, cereals, and rye beers.
- Triticale Products – breads, pastas, and cereals.
- Convenience Foods - such as sauces, dressings, ready meals, savoury and sweet snacks etc. Pretty much every food that comes packaged potentially contains gluten - ingredient labels need to be thouroughly checked if eating gluten free is an important health issue for you. The UK Food Standards Agency has up-to-date information on labelling.
Derivatives of wheat, barley, rye, and triticale also contain gluten. Varieties of wheat include durum, einkorn wheat, emmer, farro, farina, graham, KAMUT® Khorasan wheat, seitan, semolina, spelt, and wheat berries. Wheat starch and Brewer’s yeast also contain gluten.
What Are the Symptoms of Gluten-Related Disorders?
Gluten-related disorders have many shades of symptoms and affect people in different ways. Gas, bloating, abdominal pain, headaches, mental fatigue, and a general feeling of tiredness may affect those with gluten sensitivity.3/4
For others, devastating symptoms occur as gluten causes the immune system to destroy villi in the small intestine which are responsible for absorbing and transporting nutrients.
Without healthy villi, the body won’t receive the nutrients it needs which can lead to malnutrition, disorders, and disease. Initial symptoms may be similar to those with minor sensitivities; however, other symptoms may occur such as chronic diarrhea, constipation, pale and foul-smelling stools, nausea and vomiting, and stomach pain.5/6
The more serious gluten-related disorder is called “coeliac disease” which is an autoimmune disorder.
For those who have not been diagnosed with full-blown coeliac disease but are symptomatic, it takes approximately four years to reach a diagnosis of the disease.
Unfortunately, this delay may increase a person’s risk for developing other diseases while waiting. Autoimmune diseases, neuropsychiatric problems, and even cancer are linked to coeliac disease.
Additionally, other food sensitivities may occur because the damaged intestinal tract may not have the enzymes to absorb certain foods.7 (Studies have linked lactose intolerance with gluten-related disorders.8)
Why Are Gluten-Related Disorders on the Rise?
Since the 1950s, the number of gluten-related disorders diagnosed has risen quite steeply.
According to the University of Chicago Coeliac Disease Center, an average of one out of 133 people of average health suffers from coeliac disease.9 Plus, the percentage of those who suffer non-coeliac gluten-related disorders is even higher with one in every 20 people globally. 10
So, why are so many people affected by problems with gluten?
Mainly, the microbiome is compromised (and sometimes destroyed) by factors that jeopardize it. Poor gut health limits the assimilation of nutrients. Therefore, gluten isn’t processed by the body properly.
Research is ongoing in this area, but here are a few factors that show signs of having a negative impact gut health:
- Agricultural Practices. Over the last 100 years, food manufacturers and farmers have gone to great lengths to increase yields of their crops and make them more pest, weed and disease resistant for commercial production. By manipulating the DNA of grains and treating them with numerous harsh pesticides, the original plant has been altered significantly – leaving us with unstable alternatives.11/12
- Poor Diets. Modern society is all about convenience. With most pre-packaged and processed foods containing wheat or its derivatives, it is overeaten while natural foods such as vegetables and fruits are overlooked. With an imbalanced diet, the body doesn’t receive the nutrients it needs to counter any effects from foreign foods.13/14
- Non-Sprouted Grains. Once upon a time, our ancestors sprouted grains before using them. Unfortunately, food manufacturers don’t do this because it takes more time. The process of sprouting, grounding, and baking grain kernels allows the human body to digest them easier and retain more of the nutrients. It also reduces the amount of harmful anti-nutrients or enzyme inhibitors that are toxic.15
- Medication. Use of antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and other medications have a negative effect on gut microbiota. These drugs disrupt the body’s natural balance of good and bad bacteria.16/17
What Can You Do?
If you suffer from any gluten-related or wheat intolerance disorder, the key is to boost your gut health. Even coeliac disease can be reversed when the gastrointestinal tract is pumped full of good microbes.18 You can do that by eliminating gluten from your diet and nourishing your gastrointestinal tract with optimal nutrition and a balanced diet.
After all, trillions of cells make up your body and the majority of them are within your gastrointestinal tract.19 When they are balanced, your body functions properly. However, they can be out of balance when you are overweight, sick, and/or tired.
By eating a diet rich in nutrients – whilst avoiding foods containing gluten – your body can begin to heal itself. Our gluten free meal plan can help.
With a gluten free diet, any symptoms from gluten-related or wheat intolerance should begin to fade, but please keep in mind that healing takes longer for those with more serious symptoms (such as coeliac disease). Some may see changes within a few days while others will find their symptoms diminish over weeks or months.
Our 7-Day Gluten-Free Diet Plan
If you’ve ever tried a gluten-free diet in the past, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with ours. We won’t bore you with bland and boring foods.
Every meal and snack recipe has been specially designed to be tasty and nutritious, and the plan as a whole provides a healthy balance of macronutrients.
This plan is meant for people who want to lose weight, and contains around 1200-1300 calories a day which, for most people, will produce a weight loss of 1-2lbs a week, possibly more in the first week or two.*
If you are not trying to lose weight you should increase the portions sizes to suit your own calorie needs.
Whilst meals are designed for enjoyment, they are also planned out so that you don’t have to be in the kitchen all the time.
By preparing just a few recipes before your week begins, meal planning is made quick and easy for the rest of the week. When preparing your dinners, just double your portions to have hearty lunch meals that are easy to pack if you work away from home.
You can also multiply the recipes if you have a family to serve. Snacks can be eaten in the mornings or afternoons – whichever you prefer. You can find the plan here.
8 Tips for Going Gluten-Free
The thought of changing your diet may seem daunting at first, but a gluten-free diet is actually “freeing.” If you’re having symptoms of gluten-related disorders or just having trouble losing weight, you’ll find this diet may deliver. Below are 8 tips to help:
- Eat naturally gluten-free foods. Meat, poultry, eggs, fish, seafood, vegetables, fruits, plain rice, lentils, peas, beans, nuts, and seeds are all naturally free from gluten.
- Replace grains with naturally gluten-free grains. Going gluten-free doesn’t mean that you have to eliminate all grains. Amaranth, buckwheat, millet, oats, quinoa, and teff are wonderfully delicious grains that are gluten-free. With oats, just be sure they are not manufactured in the same plant as gluten grains (see Tip #6 below).
- Make your own sauces and condiments. Unfortunately, many store-bought sauces, gravies, stocks/broth, and condiments contain wheat, and therefore gluten (as well as refined sugars and other chemical additives). Instead, make your own. Arrowroot and potato starch are great for thickening sauces and gravies.
- Know which alcohols are gluten-free. Beers, lagers, stouts, and ales contain gluten. Therefore, you’ll need to opt for gluten-free alternatives such as cider, wine, sherry, spirits, port, and liquors. Some supermarkets also offer gluten-free beer. Just remember that alcohol is not very friendly to dieters trying to lose weight so you’ll have to limit your intake, and it is not recommended for our 7-Day Gluten-Free Diet.
- Be aware of cross contamination. Even a tiny bit of gluten can be enough to cause symptoms with somebody who has a severe gluten-related disorder such as coeliac disease. Therefore, you’ll need to minimize any risk of cross contamination with gluten foods. For example: When butter is used for toast, crumbs can be left on the butter from knives that have touched the bread first. Therefore, you may want to have a separate butter for yourself if your family eats toast.
- Read food labels before buying. Watch for specific grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and triticale – as well as all their derivatives. All packaged foods in the UK and the EU is covered by law for allergens. Therefore, you should be able to detect whether a product is suitable for a gluten-free diet.
- Enjoy meals with your family and friends. Gluten-free doesn’t mean you can’t go out with your family and friends for dinner. Meats, salads, and potatoes are safe. Just ask your waiter to not add extra sauces, gravies, or dressings. For salads (without croutons and cheese), use olive oil and a vinegar just to be safe.
- Experiment with foods. It takes time to learn what foods you may enjoy outside of gluten. Experiment with different foods and gluten-free recipes.
Enjoy the process!
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* WLR diet plans are designed to produce a healthy weight loss of 1-2lbs per week, based on UK Health Department estimates of average daily calorie needs for men and women in the UK. Of course, not everyone's needs are 'average', so predicted weight loss will differ from person to person. For a more accurate idea of how many calories you need as an individual, you can use the WLR tools free for 24 hours here