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What is gluten and is it bad for you?

Updated: Apr 9

Foods containing gluten inclusing pasta, oats, bread, muffin, cous cous

Ditching gluten from your diet (along with turning vegan) has definitely become a health trend in the last decade or so. There’s plenty of opinion and information out there on both of those but it can be a bit of a divisive topic.Some claim gluten is damaging to health. Others argue that we are at risk of nutritional deficiencies if we don’t eat it. So what’s the truth?


In this article we explore what gluten is, what foods you find it in and how gluten can be problematic for some. In some quarters of the wellness world there’s a ‘gluten is damaging to health’ mantra so we look a little closer at this and bust a few myths along the way.



Firstly, what is gluten and why does it cause problems for some people

Gluten refers to a number of different proteins found in grains like wheat, barley, rye, oats and any products made from them.


The main proteins found in wheat are glutenin and gliadin, which are very elastic and give bread its stretchy quality.


It is also deliberately added to enhance protein content and texture in certain foods, and to bind processed foods together. So you will often find gluten in foods where you would not expect it such as stock cubes,preserved meats including bacon and sausage and vegetarian and vegan shop bought foods.


Can you be gluten intolerant without having coeliac disease?


Yes you can, although getting a diagnosis is not always straight forward.Whether you have or don’t have a problem with gluten is very individual and can have different implications and considerations depending. It may be an overt immune response (as in coeliac or true allergy) or a more nuanced intolerance or sensitivity to gluten.


There are three main gluten-related reactions recognised; coeliac disease, wheat allergy and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.


1. Coeliac disease

One of the most widely recognised gluten-related conditions is coeliac disease. It’s an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten and it causes your body to attack the small intestine, resulting in damage to the lining of the intestine.


Symptoms range from digestive distress like diarrhoea, cramping and nausea (among others) to anaemia, neurological disorders and skin conditions. Those with coeliac disease can have malabsorption issues also and can be low in vital nutrients like iron, B12 and essential fatty acids.


Those with coeliac disease must avoid gluten for life. Testing is via blood for coeliac antibodies or an intestinal biopsy which is the gold standard for coeliac diagnosis.


According to the Coeliac Society of Ireland There are an estimated 100,000 people living with coeliac disease in Ireland, and a further 450,000 who are gluten intolerant.

Instagram poll results from about digestive discomfort associated with consuming luten
Many people experience gluten related digestive issues without being diagnosed with coeliac disease or allergies

I had a client several years ago, an older gentleman in his 70’s. He was in quite poor health, and hadn’t ‘felt well’ for many, many years. Eventually, he was tested for and diagnosed with coeliac disease and was able to improve his health. I always think ‘if only he had gotten tested for coeliac disease years ago’ he wouldn’t have had to suffer needlessly. Fortunately, advancements in testing procedures and more accessibility and availability of testingmean that coeliac disease is caught sooner with a more timely diagnosis and appropriate care. For that client, we were able to support him with a personalised gluten free nutrition plan, work on the health of his gut and improve his nutrient absorption and overall health.


2. Wheat allergy

This is an abnormal immune response to one or more proteins found in wheat.


Like other true allergies, the body develops a specific inflammatory response. The symptoms can be mild or severe and can include abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea or breathing difficulties.


Allergies are usually detected using blood testing for IgE antibodies or via a skin prick test.


3. Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity(NCGS)

This is a ‘catch-all’ phrase that covers everything else!


There are a couple of ways to ascertain if you are sensitive to gluten.


Firstly, an elimination and challenge of gluten. If you suspect that bread

gluten is causing you issues, remove it entirely for 14 to 21 days, see if your symptoms go away then reintroduce gluten back into your diet and see if the symptoms come back. This is a relatively simple and free way to see how your body handles gluten.


Secondly, an IgG food sensitivity panel. This isn’t an allergy test, it can tell you if you are intolerant to gluten and other foods. It’s generally a finger-prick blood sample which is analysed for IgG antibodies.


You may consider a gluten elimination and challenge if you have chronic digestive symptoms, headaches or migraines, joint pain or persistent fatigue.


While not life threatening, these can still have a profound effect on your health and how you experience everyday life and should not be ignored. NCGS may or may not be temporary and it does depend on the individual and often on the health of their digestive tract, sometimes we can regain tolerance to foods that we are sensitive to.


Foods that contain gluten

Bowl of gluten free oats
Gluten-free oats are available as a safer alternative for those with coeliac disease or a gluten sensitivity

While not an exhaustive list, you’ll find gluten in the following products. These should be avoided by those diagnosed with coeliac disease, wheat allergy (although they should be fine with oats and rye) and gluten sensitivity:

  • Wheat flour and anything made from wheat

  • Rye crackers and breads

  • Bread and breaded or battered foods

  • Pasta and noodles

  • *Oats and barley flakes

  • Soy sauce (Tamari soy sauce is gluten free)

  • Some crisps

  • Beer, lager and stout

  • Couscous and bulgur wheat

  • Pizza, pies and pastries

  • Cakes and biscuits

  • Breakfast cereals and muesli

  • Many packet sauces

*Oats themselves do not contain gluten, but are often contaminated with gluten during processing. Gluten-free oats are available and suitable for those with coeliac disease or a gluten sensitivity.


Why does gluten cause problems for some people?

The gluten proteins are hard for your body to break down. When they don’t break down completely, they can cause inflammation in the digestive tract or leak through the wall of your small intestine into your bloodstream, creating an inappropriate immune response.

There are some links in scientific literature to autoimmune conditions and gluten sensitivity and a trial gluten removal can (but not always!) form part of our plan with conditions such as Hashimoto’s disease or psoriasis.


Are we becoming more intolerant to gluten?

Bread and gluten-containing products have been around for thousands of years so why is this only a problem now?


Gluten-containing grains now form the backbone of the western diet thanks to an over-reliance on convenience and snack foods. Bread and pasta are staples that frequently grace family menus throughout the day. You might start with toast or cereals for breakfast, a sandwich or soup and roll at lunch and a pasta dish or more gluten based products in the evening. (Pro Tip! Keeping a food diary can be a real eye-opener into the prevalence of gluten in our daily diet).


We’re just eating way too much and often the quality is poor.


The wheat we eat today is also markedly different from the historic versions that used to be grown. Nowadays wheat is highly processed and stripped of many of its vital nutrients. This leaves us with entirely barren white flour on our shelves and is used in other highly processed foods. Add to that, wheat is also now grown very differently with fertilisers and pesticides to increase yields.

Anecdotal evidence about gluten and flour in continental Europe from instagram stories
What has your experience been, do you find gluten on the continent easier to digest?

Side note: last year we asked our Instagram followers about their experience with breads and pastries while visiting the continent, France, Italy etc. Many commented that that they experienced very little discomfort compared to similar products in Ireland as the quality of the flour abroad was much better.Ask yourself has this been your experience also?


Dr William Davis, author of Wheat Belly, had this to say: “This thing being sold to us called wheat – it ain’t wheat. It’s this stocky high-yield plan, a distant relative of the wheat our mothers used to make muffins – light years removed from the wheat of just 40 years ago.”


The biggest gluten myths that are simply not true


1. Giving up gluten is bad for you

You might have seen articles proclaiming that unless you are coeliac, you MUST eat gluten-containing products or all kinds of bad things that will happen, including nutrient deficiencies and lack of fibre. These blanket broad statements really wind me up.


While gluten isn't inherently harmful, neither is avoiding gluten. The issue is far more nuanced than a simple binary perspective.


We get nutrients like fibre from a huge range of everyday foods like vegetables, pulses, fruits, seeds and wholegrains like brown rice, quinoa and buckwheat all of which of course don’t contain any gluten.


2. Gluten free foods are more healthy

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that foods that have gluten removed from them are necessarily healthy. Gluten free ultra-processed junk food is still ultra-processed junk food and are sometimes even worse than the gluten versions!


Gluten free breads are a case in point. Because the gluten in regular flour gives bread it’s unique texture, it’s hard to recreate that same elasticity, which is why gluten free bread often contains lots of binders, gums and other agents which make them more processed, lower in fibre and more likely to spike your blood sugar levels than regular bread.

Homemamde gluten free bread
See bottom of page for link to my homemade gluten free bread recipe

When I’m working with clients who are coeliac or for some other reason must remove gluten from their diets I encourage them to make a super simple unprocessed gluten free bread using just 7 ingredients. Keep reading to access my gluten free bead recipe at the end!

3. Everyone should avoid gluten

Despite the popularity of gluten-free diets as a trendy health choice, not everyone needs to avoid gluten for health reasons. I eat gluten and have zero problems with it.For individuals who don’t have coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity, eliminating gluten from the diet is unnecessary. If our health isn’t what we want it to be then we need to look at everything diet and lifestyle related and not zone in on one particular food and blame it on that.


What you might consider though is eating better quality and slightly less gluten.


That might mean ditching the sliced pans and opting for a properly prepared sourdough loaf or some dark rye bread. Both would be far superior in quality than refined white breads.


Making this switch will not only provide you with more fibre and nutrients but will also be easier to digest.


Maybe instead of always having a sandwich of some sort for lunch you might swap to a salad bowl, a frittata or some leftover dinner.


4. Gluten causes weight gain and bloating

Another common myth is that consuming gluten leads to weight gain. While some individuals may experience bloating or discomfort after consuming gluten-containing foods due to sensitivity or intolerance there’s no significant evidence to suggest that gluten itself directly causes weight gain. Bloating and weight gain are more likely due to the fact that it’s a poor quality gluten containing food or that they are eating far too much starchy gluten grains overall and/or that there’s something else going on in the gut that is causing the bloating.


Side note: bloating isn’t always about the food!


5. Gluten sensitivity or intolerance is nonsense

There's a misconception that gluten sensitivity isn’t a ‘real’ thing and that only individuals diagnosed with coeliac disease need to avoid gluten. However, NCGSa s discussed earlier is increasingly recognised as a legitimate condition affecting a significant portion of the population. Symptoms of NCGS can range from digestive issues to neurological symptoms and skin complaints.


In a world where dietary trends seem to change as quickly as the weather, the gluten debate continues to spark controversy and confusion. From gluten-free fads to claims of its harmful effects, the conversation around this can be polarising.


Here we've delved a little into gluten and explored some truths and myths aboutit but as remarked earlier this is a very nuanced subject. How it affects everyone is quite individual. If you're struggling with symptoms of gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy, or coeliac disease, know that you're not alone. At Ciara Ryan Nutrition, we're here to offer support and guidance as you figure out your best course of action in managing symptoms through diet and lifestyle.Whether you're seeking personalised nutrition plans, functional testing, or trying to navigate your way to better health we're here for you.

Don't hesitate to reach out, email or message via the website.

Here's the link to my delicious gluten free bread recipe! Give it a try and let us know what you think.


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