Sarah says that if she could go back and tell her 20-year old self one piece of advice it would be to stop eating gluten. That would have drastically transformed her health and life throughout her twenties and thirties. She wouldn’t have carried all that extra weight around, wouldn’t have been plagued by stomach aches and other aches and pains, wouldn’t have lacked that extra bit of energy and drive that could have made her live life to the full and may have avoided four lots of major surgery for the auto-immune disease endometriosis and infertility issues.
Really? Just by not eating gluten???
Well Sarah’s testimonial is just one from a whole range of my clients and if you really want more convincing look at world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic. A nutritionist was watching him on court when he had a physical melt down and recognised the symptoms of gluten intolerance. In his book ‘Serve to Win’ he talks about his diet and going gluten free being the thing he changed to go “from the brink of failure to the champion of the world in 18 months”. In 2011 he had what has been called the greatest single season ever by a professional tennis player. He won ten titles, three Grand Slams and 43 consecutive matches. Remarkably, less than two years earlier, this champion could barely complete a tournament; plagued by aches, breathing difficulties and injuries on court.
In this post Liz will explain more about what is gluten, where we find it and why it is making so many of us feel ill and we don’t even realise. We will list some common symptoms of gluten intolerance that you can check through. If in writing this post we can reach one person who gives up gluten and revolutionises the way they feel, like Sarah and Novak Djokovic have done, then we will be overjoyed as this is a message we want to spread.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is the protein found in wheat (including different species of wheat such as spelt), rye and barley. This protein acts like “glue” in food; particularly in the baking of breads and cakes and the manufacture of pasta. Gluten free equivalents are usually less doughy, more crumbly and less pliable.
Gluten is particularly a problem for those with coeliac disease. Coeliac disease is a widely recognised lifelong autoimmune condition where the person can never eat gluten due to its damaging effect on their gut and ability to absorb nutrients. It is believed that approximately 1% of people may be coeliac; most undiagnosed. Most people have heard of coeliac disease now but less widely recognised is its sister condition – Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS). It is not known how many people have NCGS but some research estimates that it may be six to ten times more common than coeliac disease (Molina-Infante J Santolaria S Montoro M Esteve M Fernandez-Banares). Even with NCGS it is vital that gluten is avoided completely. However, digesting gluten is hard for ALL of us and it can stop us from optimally digesting nutrients.
What is the Big Deal with Gluten Intolerance Now? Why is it on the rise?
Why are we reacting to gluten grains so much? The main issue is that gluten grains are a far cry from the ancient grains that we ate thousands of years ago. Due to the need for high yields of gluten grains to feed an ever increasing population the ancient grains have been modified to suit modern high-yield production and baking techniques. Although these grains have changed, our immune systems haven’t caught up and they often react to these grains as they perceive them to be foreign bodies.
Our western diets are full of processed and fast foods and are packed with gluten. Most of us get up in the morning and have some toast or cereal. We then grab a sandwich for lunch. We go home and eat pasta for dinner and will most likely have had some biscuits, cake, pie or crackers in between. This is a massive amount of gluten that our gut has just not evolved to process.
Everywhere we turn now people are talking about gluten. More and more gluten-free products are available in the shops and supermarkets and there are regular openings of gluten-free cafes and restaurants. At the very least menus are now littered with food allergy and gluten free symbols. Even Michael McIntyre is making jokes about gluten intolerance – we have definitely moved on from Peter Kay’s “garlic bread is the future”!
What are Common Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance?
Whatever it is, for many, cutting gluten out of the diet can be simply life-changing. Symptoms such as brain fog, depression, fatigue and bloating can literally disappear, often after many decades of suffering. Self Carers published a great blog post in July 2015 which talked about 12 possible signs of gluten intolerance (some of these signs may also be associated with other nutritional factors):-
1) Migraines and headaches
2) Anxiety, depression or low mood
3) Gastrointestinal problems like abdominal pain, gas, bloating, poo problems, nausea and decreased appetite
4) “Brain Fog” where you just can’t think clearly or feel a bit “out of it”
5) Keratosis pilaris – also known as “chicken skin” on the back of your arms from vitamin A and fatty acid deficiency
6) Fibromyalgia and inflammation of connective tissue
7) Extreme fatigue, sluggishness and tiredness
8) Neurological symptoms like dizziness, feeling off balance and uncoordinated
9) Autoimmune diseases e.g. lupus, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, scleroderma, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, endometriosis and multiple sclerosis
10) Hormonal issues like polycystic ovarian syndrome, premenstrual syndrome and unexplained fertility
11) Skin problems like dermatitis herpetiformis which cause small watery and itchy blisters and patches of itchy skin
12) Weight loss or gain
Unbelievably, Sarah had 11 out of these 12 symptoms. She just can’t believe she suffered that much and was astounded when she read this post and realised some of the things she used to suffer from were down to gluten.
So if you think you have a problem with gluten what should you do?
A blood test can be done to test for coeliac disease but not for NGCS. So do a 14 day exclusion of all gluten from your diet. Note down how you feel and your symptoms or lack of, during that period. Then on day 15 eat gluten three times and see what happens over the next three days.
At worst you will have tried some new recipes and a healthier way of eating, and possibly lost a pound or two. At best you will have found the key to revolutionising your health and wellbeing.
Where is Gluten Lurking?
Many processed and packaged foods that you wouldn’t expect to contain gluten do – such as soups, sausages, gravy mixes, crisps and ready meals, as well as those that you would expect like bread, pasta, couscous and crackers. Oh and don’t forget beer and even some spirits and vodkas are made from wheat.
Some grains, even though they don’t contain gluten, can be cross-contaminated with gluten grains during growing and processing so for those who have a very real reaction to gluten they need to be aware of this too. One such grain is oats which may be contaminated with gluten grains but also contains a type of gluten called avenin, which some people are also sensitive to. Sarah buys oats from her local health food shop which suit her just fine.
It is important to look at the allergens section on food labels or more often it will be highlighted in bold in the ingredients section. Even if something is labelled gluten free it can still contain up to 20 parts per million (PPM) of gluten.
Do I Just Have to Change My Shopping To Go Down the Gluten Free From Aisle?
In general, we advise NO!
Supermarkets and food manufacturers have caught onto gluten free as a new “trend” with many traditional gluten products that can now be bought gluten free. So rapid is this trend that according to Mintel, the well-known Market Research company, the French gluten free market is worth 60 million Euros a year and is experiencing a 32% year-on-year growth; the Italian gluten free market is worth over four times this amount and the UK gluten free market is worth £210 million with 13% of the UK population avoiding gluten, the highest percentage in Europe. In the US the gluten-free market is worth a whopping $8.8 billion and is experiencing a 20% year-on-year growth.
But beware; despite many people thinking that gluten free means healthy (according to Mintel 65% of US Consumers eaten gluten-free food because they think it’s healthier than gluten containing food) it often doesn’t. Many of the products that are gluten free are highly processed and contain lots of additives and sugar. For example, one particular type of gluten free bread has chemical stabilisers, humectant, emulsifiers, sugar and dextrose included in its ingredients whilst over a quarter of a gluten free muffin, marketed as being perfect for children’s lunch boxes, is sugar with sugar listed as the first ingredient and therefore the biggest ingredient on its ingredient label.
So, whilst we recommend going gluten free, have a close look at some of the gluten free products out there before buying them. If possible, try to make your own gluten free food or just change the way you eat to substitute bread, pastas and cakes out of your diet entirely.
What exactly can I eat?
That is pretty simple – you can eat Real Food! Lots of natural foods don’t contain gluten like meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, beans, lentils, chickpeas and eggs. Think fantastic homemade granola with yoghurt and berries, scrambled eggs with roasted tomatoes and asparagus, mouth-watering curries, superfood salads, courgetti and Bolognese, winter-warming soups and even a juicy red steak! Liz and Sarah both still LOVE FOOD! Check out Liz’s post on What is Real Food and follow eatrealandheal on Instagram to regularly see what Sarah is cooking and eating.
Is This Not Just A Big Pain in the Bottom?
Don’t get us wrong, being gluten free means you have to plan your food ahead and think about food when you are travelling and socialising. It can be a right royal pain in the butt; it can be really annoying when you can’t eat that mince pie at Christmas or the biscuits being passed round in the office. But Sarah now knows that how she will feel the day after eating the mince pie just isn’t worth the 30 seconds of “enjoyment” and that by investing some time in her food she is making herself healthier so she doesn’t waste time being ill and lacking in energy. She certainly wouldn’t have the energy for Eat Real and Heal…
But don’t worry – if you are feeling frustrated or overwhelmed we are here to help you. Stick with the Eat Real and Heal tribe and we will keep coming up with gluten free recipes which are not only delicious but also healthy. We have food organising tips and of course the latest scientific research to back this all up. We are here to help you and inspire you. Do ask us any questions or tell us your stories in the comments below!
By Elizabeth Cooper
Mintel “Trends and Opportunities in the growing market for gluten-free foods. Free from Food Expo, Barcelona, June 2015.
Molina-Infante J Santolaria S Montoro M Esteve M Fernandez-Banares F (2014) Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: a critical review of current evidence Gastroenterologia y Hepatologia June-July 37(6): 362-71
Djokovic, Novak “Serve to Win:The 14-Day Gluten Free Plan for Physical and Mental Excellence.
Self Carers; 12 Signs of Gluten Intolerance; July 8 2015 http://selfcarers.com/signs-of-gluten-intolerance/