You might have noticed that recent photos on my Instagram feed have started featuring a previous enemy of mine: gluten. Don’t panic – I’ve not been eating it by accident, so I’m certainly not unwell! I’ve actually been trying to reintroduce this infamous protein a little bit, so here are my reasons for doing so.
Before I begin, I want to clarify that I was never diagnosed as a coeliac. Coeliac disease is a severe issue that involves an auto-immune response to any trace of gluten that enters the digestive system, so as a result it can be very dangerous for its sufferers if they do mistakenly consume gluten. Thankfully I don’t have this reaction and tested negative for coeliac disease when I first experienced digestive problems several years ago, but nonetheless it was believed that I suffered from various food intolerances that were responsible for the IBS that had been plaguing me for some time.
I’d already cut out dairy with quite significant positive results, but as I was still experiencing difficulties I suspected that gluten may also have been a culprit. I sought advice and tried cutting out gluten from my diet as well, an action that at first seemed to help and my symptoms didn’t seem as severe. Terrified of them getting worse again, I continued to eliminate all gluten from my food for around 18 months. However, throughout this period and particularly over the past 6 months it became increasingly clear to me that despite avoiding both dairy and gluten my symptoms still flared up every now and again, often to the same level as they had been before I cut out gluten (although never anywhere near as severe as those I’d experienced before eliminating dairy.) It seemed a little pointless to me to avoid gluten if it had little impact on my digestion, and a visit to a dietician confirmed my beliefs. I have therefore been experimenting with eating small amounts of gluten and avoiding just the refined versions of wheat-based foods that lack fibre and nutrients.
This process has so far gone very smoothly: my symptoms have not got any worse and I feel just as well as usual. I’ve even managed to cope with wholegrain bread sandwiches, and my first bowl of pasta in almost two years! The thought of this would have terrified me a few months ago: my digestive discomfort was so debilitating and painful that I was scared of eating anything that made it worse, and it seems that I had mistakenly blamed gluten for these problems when in fact other foods were more to blame. Whilst dairy remains a complete no-go area, and experiments with the famed FODMAP diet have had little success for me, I have managed to work out that it is often large quantities of nuts and legumes that can give my stomach a pretty hard time. By acknowledging this and ensuring that I never eat a whole tub of hummus in one go (willpower is certainly necessary for this one), I’m now managing to control my symptoms whilst starting to enjoy gluten again, and my digestion has actually improved quite significantly whilst making this transition.
Gluten has undeniably had a hard time recently. With more and more allergy-friendly foods becoming available, the gluten-free label has become synonymous with healthy options, when in fact a lot of the time this is not the case. Gluten-free alternatives such as breads and biscuits are often packed with a whole host of refined flours, preservatives, artificial raising agents and flavouring to compensate for the lack of wheat in the recipes, so when choosing gluten-free products I was always aware that I was sometimes consuming more harmful ingredients than I would be by eating the wheat versions, a fact that worried me. It is true that gluten can cause inflammation in many people, and that more and more people are being diagnosed with digestive difficulties related to gluten consumption. However, I believe that for those people who feel perfectly well and healthy whilst eating wheat then there really is no immediate need to cut it out – whilst I can’t stomach large amounts of gluten, I’ve found that choosing small amounts of wholegrain products without lots of added chemicals works well for me. If you like gluten and tolerate it well, don’t feel that gluten is the enemy – be more concerned about the additives you may consume in alternative products and simply choose foods whose ingredients you can pronounce(!) When incorporated into a balanced diet featuring lots of greens, fruit and healthy proteins and fats, many people find that wholegrain wheat products sit perfectly well with them. It’s all about finding what works for you and makes you feel your best – no matter how many health articles you have read, in the end only you know your body the best.
For those of you who have been concerned that I have been unknowingly eating gluten recently, thank you so much for worrying! I can assure you that the decision is a carefully-planned and conscious one, and so far I have been reaping the benefits of it. Living without pasta was difficult, so whilst I won’t be overloading on gluten and will continue to minimise my intake, I will no longer deny myself of this delicious and often demonised food unnecessarily.