Here's how to work out whether a gluten-free diet is for you, plus everything you can (and can't) eat if it is
Wondering whether you should follow a gluten-free diet?
Swerving gluten – the protein found in wheat, barley and rye – has become something of a diet trend over the past few years, with rumoured celebrity followers including Victoria Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow.
But nutritionist Libby Limon warns against cutting out arbitrary food groups for the sake of it. She says: ‘No diet should rely too much on one food, such as gluten grains, but there is no evidence to show gluten is generally harmful to us.’
You should, however, follow a gluten-free diet if you have coeliac disease or a gluten intolerance. According to the NHS, coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition that causes diarrhoea, abdominal pain and indigestion reactions when the person eats gluten.
What happens if I’m coeliac and don’t follow a gluten-free diet?
Aside from the pretty dire sounding side effects mentioned up there? You’ll damage your gut lining, and likely become nutrient deficient. ‘Common secondary effects include anemia, micronutrient deficiencies, hormone imbalance, mood swings and, in drastic cases, organ damage’, says Libby.
What happens if I’m gluten intolerant and don’t follow a gluten-free diet?
In cases of non-coeliac intolerance, you may suffer from slightly less clear symptoms, but ones that indicate a gluten intolerance nonetheless. Libby says you could experience anything from gut issues, to brain fog, to lethargy.
If you are bloating regularly, she recommends taking probiotics (ideally above a dose of 10 billion). Her favourites are Link Nutrition‘s—they help support your gut microflora, leading to a balanced digestive system and less bloating.
Going down the gluten-free track (whether you’re coeliac or not) can seem daunting and the menu options slim, but you’d be surprised – there’s actually a lot of good gluten-free ingredients to choose from. Read for what the foods experts recommend consuming more of, and what to avoid.
What foods can you eat on a gluten-free diet?
‘When going gluten-free and cutting out carb-heavy staples, you need to add healthy fats into your diet to keep you full, energised, and to load your body with beneficial nutrients,’ says celebrity nutritionist Madeleine Shaw. ‘Salmon and mackerel are full of omega-3 fatty acids, which ensure healthy immune function.’
‘Rice flour is a great gluten-free flour alternative,’ says nutritionist Jonny Stannard. ‘Use it for baking bread or cakes, and to thicken soups and sauces.’
‘Quinoa is a great option to replace pasta and bread in meals, without changing the ‘feel’ of the meal too much,’ says clinical performance nutritionist Martin MacDonald. ‘It is slow digesting and therefore gives you more stable energy levels and keeps you full for longer.’
‘Some yoghurt products contain additives that make them unsafe for those following a gluten-free diet,’ says Martin. ‘Total Greek yoghurt only contains two ingredients, milk and yoghurt cultures. It’s also a great source of protein.’
‘If you reduce cereal consumption, it’s important to seek out key vitamins and minerals such as iron,’ says Martin. ‘Liver is an excellent source of iron and many other micronutrients.’
‘Walnuts contain more omega 3 fatty acids than any other nut,‘ says Madeleine. Eating them will keep you feeling full, and omega-3 also boosts your brainpower.
Brown rice and pasta
Jonny recommends this as a great gluten-free alternative to wheat pasta. It’s high in fibre and contains around the same amount of calories as normal pasta.
Madeleine recommends including eggs in your gluten-free diet. They are a great source of protein and the yolk contains Vitamin D, an essential nutrient.
‘Make sure you include some gluten-free grains and starches in your diet, including sweet potatoes or beans,’ says Jonny.
Avocados are another great diet staple for those going gluten-free. They are a great source of filling and healthy fats. ‘Research also shows that eating one avocado a week balances hormones and helps prevent cervical cancer,’ says Madeleine.
Madeleine suggests including coconut oil in your gluten-free diet. ‘It’s converted into instant energy in a similar way to carbs or sugar,’ she says. ‘However, coconut oil doesn’t spike insulin levels. This means that you are less likely to crash in the afternoon and grab something sweet.’
‘Mussels are an excellent source of zinc, which can become low in a gluten-free diet that does not contain fortified foods,’ says Martin.
These should help curb your cake and cookie cravings. ‘These are best not consumed on a regular basis but are lovely with some organic nut butter and jam,’ says Martin.
What foods should you swerve on a Gluten-free diet?
Three grains can’t be eaten on a gluten-free diet: wheat, barley and rye. There are hundreds of products containing these, but keep scrolling for a few of the main ones.
Did you know, cous cous is actually a pasta? Hence why those following a gluten-free diet should avoid it, as it’s made from gluten-containing durum wheat.
As above, pasta is made from durum wheat flour, which contains (yep, you guessed it), gluten. Do keep an eye out for gluten-free pastas, most of which are readily available now in supermarkets.
Another grain high in good old gluten is barley, which most cereals are made from. It sits at around 8% gluten. If you really love cereal for breakfast, we recommend opting for a gluten-free alternative, instead. Or read up on our favourite fat loss breakfasts for a whole host of healthy alternatives.
Bear with us—while oats, ingredients wise, are technically gluten free, the problem arises from where they are processed. Most oat packets indicate that they’re handled in facilities that also process gluten, meaning they run the risk of carrying some, too. Plus, oats do contain avenin, which is a protein not the same but similar to gluten.
Rye is in lots of products, including beer, and sadly, all contain secalin, a specific type of gluten protein.
An unexpected one, but one to be wary of nonetheless, says Libby. ‘It’s made by combining soy and crushed wheat. However, most products are generally labelled now – just remember to check’.
If you are concerned about the symptoms of coeliac disease, speak to your GP to investigate further