Time magazine put the gluten-free "movement" second on its top-10 list of food trends for 2012. Even now, more and more people seem to be jumping on the bandwagon, with gluten-free recipes and products everywhere you turn. But are there any general benefits to following a gluten-free diet?
Well no, actually, there aren't. Not unless you really have a medical reason to avoid gluten. Dietitians agree there's no advantage to adopting a gluten-free diet if you don't have coeliac disease or a related condition. But if you do, that's a different matter.
What is Gluten?
Gluten occurs naturally in certain grains such as barley, wheat, rye, triticale and spelt. An excellent source of protein, and harmless in small doses in your diet, gluten can be found in everyday foods like bread, cakes and pies, cereal, pasta, crackers and beer.
Gluten is also added to foods as a separate ingredient in its own right. Gluten makes pasta springy and rubbery, gravy gluey and candy bars chewy.
Gluten is added to bread for to increased dough strength and elasticity, among other things. In processed foods gluten is often contained in ingredients such as emulsifiers, flavourings and stabilisers.
In fact, at times it can seem to those trying to avoid it that few foods are gluten-free!
Coeliac Disease or Gluten Intolerance?
People who have coeliac disease have a genetic auto-immune disorder that triggers the tiny, finger-like projections (or 'villi') in their small intestines to swell up and lie flat when they ingest gluten.
This interferes with the absorption of the nutrients they're taking in through their regular diet and can cause malnutrition.
Symptoms of coeliac disease include bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, lethargy, migraines, mineral deficiencies, anaemia and weight loss.
Gluten intolerance, meanwhile, is an emerging area and until recently was not recognised because the basic symptoms can overlap with coeliac disease.
However, while not usually as severe as the disease, having an intolerance can cause enough discomfort to persuade sufferers to free themselves from gluten for good.
Get Tested to See Where You Stand on Gluten
Even with growing awareness of the role of gluten, Coeliac Australia reports that while the disease affects about one in 100 Australians, 75 per cent of sufferers remain undiagnosed.
Untreated, coeliac disease may lead to infertility, osteoporosis and bowel cancer, so if you think you may be a sufferer, it's important to arm yourself with the correct diagnosis.
Gluten intolerance can also lead to infertility and osteoporosis, as well as depression and liver disease, which is why it's best for sufferers to follow a gluten-free diet.
If you're showing gluten-related symptoms and want to review your diet, see your doctor for a blood test and biopsy.
"This is the gold standard for true diagnosis of coeliac disease," says 12WBT dietitian Lisa Donaldson, who has coeliac disease herself and has to avoid gluten in her diet.
However, don't cut out gluten before having these tests, as the small intestine lining may then heal itself and the results will be inconclusive.
Lisa's Life With Coeliac Disease
12WBT dietitian Lisa Donaldson explains how she made a life-changing discovery.
I was diagnosed with coeliac disease almost 12 years ago. It was life-changing. From that point on I made sure my diet was gluten-free.
Previously, I was convinced stomach cramps were a normal part of digestion, because that was all I had ever known. I was undernourished and was always getting sick.
My body wasn't absorbing the right nutrients, and gluten was playing a huge role. I was a primary school teacher and I thought I was just picking up germs from my students.
I visited my doctor to see what I could do to boost my immune system. I just wanted to be rid of all these symptoms.
I had no idea the gluten in my diet was causing me so many problems. But then I had some blood tests and it turned out I carried the gene for coeliac disease, so I was sent off for a colonoscopy.
I can honestly say the diagnosis changed my life - everything changed!
The first few weeks without gluten were hard because I wasn't sure what to eat. Twelve years ago there weren't many gluten-free products on the market, but I was determined to stay gluten-free and overhaul my diet.
I started to feel better after a few weeks of being gluten-free. After one month I had worked out ways to improve my diet, and I felt incredible.
As a result of being gluten-free, I noticed an increase in vitality, a boost in energy and I stopped getting so ill.
I couldn't believe how amazing I felt. No more cramping, distended belly or discomfort.
Cutting gluten from my diet led me to a whole new life. I left school-teaching to return to university and pursue a career in nutrition and dietetics. I wanted to help other people like me feel amazing.
After what I discovered through being gluten-free, I wanted people to know that diet makes an enormous impact on our health and wellbeing.
A Gluten-Free Diet
If you've been diagnosed with gluten intolerance or coeliac disease, it's not too difficult to put a gluten-free diet into practice.
"People avoiding gluten can still manage to eat a varied, fibre-rich diet," says Lisa. "Fruit and vegetables play a valuable role, but legumes such as baked beans, chickpeas and lentils are also a great source of fibre in your diet.
"Nuts and seeds are delicious and gluten-free, and adding chia seeds and psyllium husks to skinny smoothies or natural yoghurt is an easy way to boost fibre in your diet. Add brown rice, quinoa or a cob of corn to meals to increase fibre and carbohydrate intake."
Avoiding gluten is no reason to go without carbs. The Australian Dietary Guidelines stress the importance of enjoying six serves of wholegrain foods per day. Rice, millet and corn contain no gluten so you can include them in your diet.
Not only are wholegrain foods an excellent source of energy, they're also packed with key nutrients and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and excess weight gain.
Lisa recommends adding lots of whole foods to your diet. "The main problem areas are processed and packaged foods, so reading labels and looking out for gluten becomes critically important," she says.
Lisa's Shopping List
The following basic list of foods will help you follow a gluten-free diet.
Unprocessed meat, fish, chicken, turkey, seafood, ham off the bone, lamb, beef, kangaroo and duck are gluten-free.
Beware of meats that are crumbed or marinated in sauces as those additions often contain gluten. Be extremely cautious of deli meats and sausages as gluten can be used as a firming agent.
Enjoy them boiled, poached, scrambled or use them in omelettes and frittatas. All of these are gluten-free. Just be careful of quiches and the dreaded gluten-rich pastry.
From full-cream, skim, evaporated and condensed milk to fresh cream, natural yoghurt, feta, ricotta, cottage cheese, cheddar, mozzarella and so on, dairy is safe for those who need to avoid gluten.
But be cautious of some custards, flavoured or sweetened yoghurts, ice-creams and dairy alternatives like soy milk, which may all have hidden gluten.
Fruit and vegetables
Fresh, canned and frozen fruit and veggies are gluten-free, as is fruit juice. Be careful of vegetables that come in sauces though, as these might have gluten.
Nuts and nut butters
Delicious and gluten-free.
Cereal and baking products
Corn flour, soy flour, lentil flour, rice (all types), rice flour, chickpea flour, almond meal, lupin flour, rice bran, potato flour, buckwheat, millet, amaranth, polenta, psyllium and breakfast cereals made from corn and rice are gluten-free. Always double-check the ingredient lists though, and look for gluten-free labelling.
Bread and biscuits
Most rice crackers, corn cakes, rice crispbreads, corn tortillas and corn taco shells are gluten-free. For bread and wraps, you'll need to look out for varieties that are gluten-free as most brands are not.
Chow down on chickpeas, kidney beans, berlotti beans, cannellini beans, black-eyed peas, four-bean mix, lentils and most baked beans, as these are generally gluten-free. Always check labels though.
Pasta and noodles
Most regular pasta contains gluten, so look for the gluten-free variety. Rice noodles, rice or bean vermicelli and 100 per cent buckwheat noodles are gluten-free.
Tomato paste, tahini, jam, honey, maple syrup, cocoa, most kinds of vinegars (except malt), some sauces such as tamari, and some salad dressings are gluten-free. Always check labels though.
Plain chips and corn chips, popcorn and plain chocolate are still on the menu, as they are generally gluten-free.
Tea, coffee, mineral water, fruit and vegetable juices, wine and spirits are gluten-free. But beer contains gluten, so you'll need to abstain from ale.
- Gluten-free hummus with veggie sticks
- Fresh fruit and natural yoghurt
- Popcorn with gluten-free toppings
- Rice cakes with ricotta and tomato
- A hard-boiled egg
- Dried fruit and nuts
- Banana and cinnamon skim milk smoothie
- Baked beans
Read more about how to put together healthy meals in our articles on breakfasts, snacks, lunches and dinners.
A Vegetarian Diet Without Gluten
Are you a vegetarian and gluten intolerant? Here are Lisa's gluten-free vego suggestions.
Breakfast without gluten:
- Two poached eggs with spinach, mushrooms and tomato with one slice of gluten-free toast with a smear of avocado
- Warm baked beans with grilled tomato, mushrooms and asparagus
- Quinoa porridge with stewed pear, natural yoghurt, sunflower seeds and cinnamon
Lunch without gluten:
- Chickpea salad with pumpkin, baby spinach and steamed beans, dressed in balsamic vinaigrette
- Gluten-free salad wrap with hummus, hard-boiled egg and salad
- Brown rice or quinoa salad with leafy greens, olives and feta
Dinner without gluten:
- Stir-fry using tofu and Asian vegetables. Swap gluten-containing soy for tamari, add ginger, chilli and basil/coriander for flavour and serve with rice or buckwheat noodles
- Vegetarian frittata using eggs, grated vegetables and feta cheese
- Vegetarian BBQ skewers using haloumi, capsicum, mushrooms, zucchini and tofu, served with a cob of corn
For Further Help
An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) can show you how to follow a gluten-free diet. The Dietitians Association of Australia has a list of APDs in your area.
- Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation includes great gluten-free recipes tailored specifically for those with gluten intolerance or coeliac disease.