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What is gluten and why is it bad for some people?

By Kahrynn Lloyd, BHSc Nutritional Medicine

What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in all forms of wheat products such as spelt, rye, barley, semolina, rye, kamut etc. Gluten is comprised of two main protein components: Gliadin and Glutenin. Together, these components allow gluten to provide elasticity and structure of bread and other dough products. In Latin, gluten literally means “glue” – hence why it can be great for baking. Although very useful, gluten can also be very harmful to the human body as not all individuals are capable of breaking down or digesting this “glue” like substance.

Why is gluten bad for some people?
Some people have a severe negative reaction when ingesting gluten and gluten containing products. Gluten intolerance can range from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, to Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity, to Coeliac Disease (an auto-immune response to gluten).

Coeliac Disease is a serious medical condition which causes the immune system to react abnormally to gluten, damaging villi in the small intestines. Intestinal villi are responsible for the absorption of nutrients from the food we eat. Thus, if villi are damaged, our bodies are not capable of absorbing vitamins and minerals required for optimal health. Our body's ability to produce digestive enzymes (such as lactase; responsible for breaking down lactose and milk products) is also compromised, reducing digestive functioning and potentially leading to secondary dairy intolerance. Poor digestive function and reduced mineral absorption may lead to symptoms such as:

  • Abdominal bloating or pain
  • Diarrhoea and/or constipation
  • Flatulence
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Fatigue 
  • Joint and muscle aches
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Mood and behavioural problems
  • Eczema and dermatitis 
  • Weight loss
  • Hair loss
  • Menstrual problems
  • Miscarriage and unexplained infertility 
  • Thyroid and other autoimmune disorders 

Sometimes, patients experience symptoms of Coeliac Disease, but Coeliac Disease is not the culprit. This is referred to as ‘Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity’. Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity causes unpleasant symptoms in response to consumption of gluten and wheat containing products. According to Coeliac Australia, common complaints include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, bloating and excessive wind, as well as lethargy, poor concentration and general aches and pains. Although the body is not “allergic” to gluten, symptoms generally subside or disappear when removing gluten and wheat from the diet. The incidence of Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity is rising in modern day western diets, and is more commonly being identified by Dietitians, Naturopaths and Nutritionists.
Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity displays similar patterns to conditions such as wheat allergies and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). All of which generally present in the form of severe digestive complaints, skin reactions, fatigue, lethargy, mood changes etc. Following a gluten and wheat free diet in these conditions may reduce symptoms, however if symptoms persist, always consult with a healthcare professional.

How To Know if You’re Gluten Intolerant
Symptoms of gluten intolerance can be very hard to distinguish as they share common side effects as other intolerances and medical conditions. Thus, diagnosis is required by a General Practitioner (GP) or Gastroenterologist. Blood tests are generally performed to check for the body’s reaction to gluten, followed by a small bowel biopsy to confirm diagnosis. If diagnosed, gluten should be completely eliminated from the diet. A consultation with a Dietician, Nutritionist or Naturopath is essential during treatment and follow up.

How to Safely Do a Gluten-Free Diet
Symptoms of gluten intolerance may take 6-12 months to subside. Although there has been research into potential treatments, there is no cure. Education and follow up of a strict gluten free diet is essential. Individuals with active celiac disease are at risk for deficiencies of zinc, folate and iron, as well as the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Thus, gluten free diets should always be guided by a qualified health care practitioner. We have provided a chart with some helpful tips and a gluten free shopping list for your convenience:

  • Always check for a “gluten free” label – if not listed, most likely the product contains gluten or traces of gluten 
  • Look for gluten free menu options at restaurants and cafes (ask the waiter if you’re unsure) – hidden gluten may be found in dressings and condiments that aren’t always listed on the menu 
  • Oats contain gluten – in Australia oats are NOT considered gluten free and should be avoided in Coeliac Diceases.

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Gluten Free Products at Healthy Life 
Been diagnosed? Not to fear, we have your covered! 

  • Ceres Organics gluten free pasta range and Tamari Sauce 
  • Herbamare gluten free seasoning 
  • Brookfarm gluten free muesli
  • Kuranda and/or Blue Dinosaur paleo bars gluten free muesli bars/snacks 
  • Protein Bread Co gluten free pizza, muffin, bread and pancake mix 
  • Love Natural Almond Meal, Coconut Flour and Brown Rice 
  • Choices gluten free bread, sausage rolls, pies and cupcakes 
  • Zebra Dream gluten free ice cream
  • Pana gluten free chocolate 
  • Remedy Kombucha gluten free drinks 

Should Everyone Avoid Gluten?
The answer to this question lies within you and your healthcare professional. Although a vast majority of the population may notice improvements to their overall health when following a gluten free diet, no two bodies are alike, and for some gluten may not be an issue at all. If followed properly, gluten free diets may be extremely nourishing to the body. However, “gluten free” does not always mean healthy. There are many “gluten free” products out there filled with replacements such as sugar, preservatives and nasty additives. Always check the label, and as always – fresh food is the best food!

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