My take on gluten-free and whether you really can be 'gluten sensitive'

Those who know me from my Nutritionist days often drop the ‘g bomb’ question and quiz me for my take on ‘gluten free’. Most people have an opinion on it and let’s be honest; why wouldn’t they? GF is everywhere now. Breads, beers, water and even shampoo is now available to the conscientious gluten-free shopper.

There are no shortage of detailed gluten-free articles across the web and the reason I’m writing this is simply because I’m asked A LOT. Not because my opinion holds any particular sway but probably because I’ve been both gluten-free myself and have worked with a lot of gluten-free people over the years.

I’ll keep it brief.


What’s gluten?

It’s a group of proteins found in Wheat, Rye and Barley. It’s what makes bread dough sticky and elastic. There’s no gluten in oats but they do contain a protein called avenin which is similar to gluten. Any gluten found in oats is usually there as a result of cross-contamination when the crops are harvested.


What’s so special about it?

On the plus side it’s what makes baking fun as gluten’s the gluey substance that makes your morning croissant so light and airy without it turning to dust (hence the name GLUten). On the down side it’s also what makes some people feel completely and utterly shite whenever they eat foods made from wheat, rye or barley.


Where does coeliac disease fit in to it?

Some people feel so incredibly crap when they eat gluten they’re diagnosed with Coeliac Disease. Make no mistake, this isn’t just a gippy tummy or faddy eating. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder (where the body mistakenly attacks itself) imparting a whole host of delights including, nausea, vomiting, malnutrition, mouth ulcers and dermatitis. It’s really not much fun.

Coeliac sufferers may look like fussy eaters but the only way to manage the disease it to avoid foods with gluten in entirely. Something I always point out too is that most sane people wouldn’t voluntarily give up bread and cakes without a fight so trust me when I say Coeliac sufferers don’t choose to avoid gluten, they have to.


Do people without coeliac disease need to go gluten free or are they just attention seekers?

Let’s be honest. We’ve all thought it. Is that friend of yours really having gluten issues or do they just need to be given a sandwich and told to shut up?

It’s true that some people just make shit up for attention. Some probably do have a few food issues that aren’t anything to do with gluten and others, well, they may just have a genuine problem with gluten without necessarily being a coeliac. It’s a mixed bag.

We’ll not spend any words on the attention seekers but those who genuinely seem to struggle with gluten and yet don’t have coeliac disease are likely to find themselves in limbo at the moment. We’re in Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) territory here; a condition where gluten, and gluten alone causes marked symptoms similar to those seen in coeliac disease without the person actually having coeliac disease. The research into the condition is pretty new and a lot of Doctors still refuse to acknowledge its existence which is a bit of a drag if you’re one of those people genuinely feeling pants because of your pastry addiction.


What do I think?

First and foremost I’ll defend a coeliac sufferer to the bitter end. Nobody asks for an autoimmune disease, especially one that takes away a lot, and I do mean A LOT of the sociable pleasures in life; pasta, bread, cake etc. and the ability to eat them freely with your mates. It really sucks that coeliac sufferers are swept up with all the faddists who change their food sensitivities as much as their nail varnish.

As for people who have a turbulent relationship with gluten and don’t have coeliac disease, well, I think we need to cut these people some slack. It’s early days but nutritional science, especially research into the gut and the (here comes a big word) microbiome, is advancing pretty bloody quickly and new discoveries are being made all the time that challenge previous ideas. That’s the beauty of science.

I think it’s entirely possible gluten might be a real issue for people without coeliac disease. I do think the number of those people is likely very small however and nowhere near the scale of the great gluten catastrophe the wellness industry would have us believe.


Want to know more about Coeliac Disease? Coeliac UK is a good place to start >