The gluten free market has boomed over the past few years and is thought to be worth over £200 million. The BBC reports that UK supermarkets are increasingly stocking their ‘free from’ shelves, particularly with products without dairy or gluten. Consumers are now associating this type of products with a natural and healthy lifestyle in general and not just an alternative for people suffering from an intolerance to these foods. In this article we will focus on gluten related disorders and on the benefits and disadvantages of a gluten free diet.
Gluten is a protein component found in many grains such as wheat, rye and barley and gives strength, elasticity and the ability to hold food products together. It can be found in many foods derived from these grains such as pasta, bread, crackers, biscuits and in some processed foods such as soups, sauces, ready meals or sausages. According to the NHS, the number of people who have a type of food intolerance has risen dramatically over the years, and gluten related intolerance is amongst the most common culprits.
According to Coeliac UK, coeliac disease is a lifelong autoimmune disease caused by the immune system reacting to gluten, where the small intestine becomes inflamed and unable to absorb nutrients. It affects one in every 100 people in the UK. The NHS says it can cause a range of symptoms including diarrhoea, abdominal pain and bloating; as well as several other general symptoms such as fatigue, unexpected weight loss, rash, nerve damage, problems getting pregnant and disorders that affect balance, co-ordination and speech.
It is also possible to be intolerant to gluten without suffering from coeliac disease, according to Coeliac UK. This is sometimes called a non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), where gut symptoms similar to that of coeliac disease are present when eating foods with ingredients containing gluten, but without the associated antibodies or the damage to the gut lining found with coeliac disease.
Other Gluten Related Disorders
- Wheat Allergy – A wheat allergy occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to one or more of the (usually) proteins found in wheat.
When a person has a wheat allergy, white blood B-cells send out certain antibodies to attack the wheat, and local tissues in the body then send out natural chemical messages that alert the rest of the body of a problem.
This results in wheat allergy symptoms, which can be nausea, abdominal pain, itching, swelling of the lips and tongue, trouble breathing or anaphylaxis. Wheat allergy is most common in children who usually grow out of it, but it is essential to avoid wheat from your diet when suffering from wheat allergy, and usually barley and rye too, as they contain similar proteins.
- Dermatitis Herpetiformis (DH) – DH is described by the NHS as an autoimmune skin condition linked to coeliac disease which is more common in men than women and rare in children, and affects approximately 1 in 10,000 people, a number fewer than those with coeliac disease. It is said by Patient Platform to be caused by a gluten intolerance, as most people with DH have some degree of coeliac disease which may not yet be diagnosed or symptoms may not be noticeable. Typical DH symptoms are red, raised patches, usually with blisters that burst with scratching, severe itching and often stinging.
Gluten Free Diets
So, what about gluten free diets for those who don’t have an intolerance or disease?
The Independent reports that gluten free diets have become popular amongst people without coeliac disease or a gluten related disorder, in the belief that it is healthy. However, following a gluten free diet for non-medical reasons may do more harm than good.
According to the Telegraph, scientists have warned that gluten-free diets should not be encouraged among people who do not have coeliac disease or gluten intolerance. They cite research from Harvard University where data from nearly 120,000 people over 26 years found that going gluten-free did not cut the risk of heart disease; but instead warned that restricting gluten from your diet may result in a low intake of whole grains which are beneficial for the heart.
The Telegraph also reports on a study by Harvard which suggests that avoiding gluten or eating only small amounts increases the danger of diabetes by as much as 13%.
If you don’t have a diagnosed coeliac disease, or any other gluten related disorders, it may not be a good idea to follow a gluten free diet. If you think you may be coeliac or have an intolerance to gluten or wheat, see your GP or a healthcare specialist before making any changes.
Disclaimer: The content of this website is provided for informational purposes only and does not substitute the medical advice from a healthcare professional