Me and gluten: it's complicated

Gluten. How did one little word turn the world of nutrition on its head? 

There has been so much swirling around in the media about gluten and I feel in the last few months it's only built:

One minute it's giving us disease, the next it's perfectly healthy. One person says it causes gut irritation, the other says without it you're missing out on nutrients. Supermarkets and adverts are making gluten-free accessible, others online bemoan those who get sucked down the free-from aisle... 

Where does that leave the average guy or gal trying to work out what to eat? 

When I originally went to the GP about my IBS symptoms the first doctor I saw said "some people find cutting out gluten and dairy helps." Not really helpful or specific, but the doctor said it, so.... it must be right? (I've talked about this more in my Who should I listen to about what to eat? post).

I didn't jump on the gluten free thing because it was celebrity endorsed. But I definitely applied it to my diet without really doing any research or questioning what it was or how it might be affecting me.

What I did know was that gluten intolerance is something that's really hard to prove and so when cutting out gluten reduced my IBS symptoms (along with a whole host of other things), I put 2 and 2 together and made 5 and decided it must be bad for me. 

Over a year on and I've grown and learned a lot. This culminated recently stood with Ceri of Natural Kitchen Adventures at a launch event being offered canapés. The waitress pointed and explained about the contents: "these are gluten free, these have gluten in them."

We both paused and had a little panic over what to pick - and then started to talk about our gluten attitudes and the cringe that comes with it. "Well..... sometimes I eat it... but sometimes I try to avoid it.... No no, I'm not allergic... I think it makes me bloated.... I used to avoid it but I have it now and again... oh what the hell that bread looks amazing!" 

I thought it was about time to confront this gluten demon and get on the blog to talk about it.

And rather than do it alone, I've roped in a friendly face to discuss all things gluten-ous - Lea Tierney from Can Eat Attitude

A Coeliac herself, I met Lea through the Health Bloggers Community when she was looking for guest bloggers (I wrote this for her on setting new morning routines). I wanted to get to the bottom of Lea's relationship with gluten, to see if it could help me understand more about how I should be feeling and thinking. 

What's resulted is a massive conversation I'm so excited to share with you! We gabbed a lot and so I'm going to be splitting these conflabs into four separate posts over the next few months focused on different aspects of gluten and gluten free living:

Attitudes - can Coeliac's learn to love people like me that are part time gluten-free?! 

Mainstreaming Gluten Free - the free-from aisle is amazing! Right? 

Shopping like a Coeliac - what does Lea buy and what does she really miss? 

All the science and blogger responsibility - there's loads of bloggers and Instagram accounts banging on about how great gluten free is, should they be doing more to educate and explain? 


So let's get stuck in! Please welcome Lea to The Flourishing Pantry, I hope you enjoy the first part of our chat. There's plenty more to come so make sure you check back for the next installment. You can always sign up to my mailing list so you don't miss it. 

Me and Lea at the HBC Summit in April! Ambassadors together (read = pro-goodie bag stuffers and expert crowd managers) 

Me and Lea at the HBC Summit in April! Ambassadors together (read = pro-goodie bag stuffers and expert crowd managers) 

V: Gonna go straight in and ask this at the top: Do you hate people that go gluten free even though they're not coeliac? 

L: Ha, that’s a hilarious question! Being someone with dietary requirements I’m used to feeling people’s judgement/occasional mockery of my lifestyle and there’s no way I would judge anyone for choosing to go gluten free when they’re not a Coeliac. 

V: Okay so if people THINK that going gluten free is making them feel better, it’s okay to let them do it?  

L: I’m inclined to say yes. I think your body should be your guide and if you feel at your best excluding gluten then great. But I do think you should get Coeliac Disease ruled out first.

V: Good point, a diagnosis could be major.

But for many if they do go to the GP and find they aren’t Coeliac they still choose to go gluten free anyway. Do you think that’s misguided? Why do you think they do it? 

By the way this is totally me, but when I first sent you the question I didn’t tell you so I could get your honest response! Cue evil laugh…

L: Haha! I know heaps of people that have taken this route and I would say the same thing whether I knew (and liked them) or not, promise!

There's very many and varied reasons. It’s tricky. I can’t say as a sweeping statement it’s always “misguided” because I don’t know every single person’s motivations or how much research they have done but in a lot of cases my gut feeling is it can be misinformed at best and faddy at worst.

Gluten free pasta for all!

Gluten free pasta for all!

At worst people go gluten free because it’s become “aspirational” somehow. They are copying someone else to get results (weight loss, end to bloating etc.) but not realising there is no one size fits all/magic pill that works universally. What works for one person won't necessarily bring about the same or desired results for another.

V: Let’s cover blogger and celebrity responsibility in another post. But you’re right, there’s a horrendous amount of “eat like me = look / feel like me” out there without the consumer really thinking about, researching and assessing what works for them.

Absolutely. On the flip side at best people are going gluten free because they read a study (not just followed a celebrity) that said that going gluten free was the best thing for everyone.

I know that some of these types of studies exist. I haven’t read them all myself but as I already said one size fits all doesn’t work and anything proclaiming a magic pill should be viewed with a degree of scepticism until really thoroughly investigated.

V: Yeah and let’s not even get into the other recent extreme example of this with the whole “lectin free” diet. I shared a podcast with you the other day – it made us both pretty angry!

Anyone telling the general population that they should cut out huge swathes of ingredients that they claim are “poisonous” should definitely be viewed with scepticism. Even if they are a heart surgeon.

L: Exactly. Science is always evolving and new data and studies will always show up new findings – perhaps in 10 years we will all be of the resounding conclusion that no one should be eating gluten but I’m not sure how certain that is yet.

V: Oh god or maybe lectin and then you and I will have to hang our heads in shame!

L: Haha! We'll see about that but let’s hope not!

Some of the studies do talk about how gluten containing foods are largely man-made and so we shouldn’t be eating them which I can see the logic in. But I tend to think a lot of the issue stems from just how reliant our society is on gluten containing foods: just look at what’s available when you go to an event – everything is wrapped in bread!

V: Or travelling. Everything in an airport or on a plane or train is a flippin’ baguette, or wrap or a toastie! Where are the salads?!

Photo © Lea at  Can Eat Attitude  (it's gluten free bread, obvs) 

Photo © Lea at Can Eat Attitude (it's gluten free bread, obvs) 

L: The other ‘best’ reason people might be doing gluten free is they do actually feel heaps better. And that’s no surprise when there are thought to be around half a million un-diagnosed Coeliacs in the UK and who knows how many more with undiscovered gluten intolerance.

Many people are diagnosed with gluten intolerance without having Coeliac Disease and so adopt a gluten free diet. Some people look for the source of problematic bodily experiences in their food by themselves and opt for alternative testing.

V: Yup, that was totally me with nasty bloating / constipation / diarrhoea etc.

L: Exactly: you’ve mentioned before your own scepticism about the efficacy of intolerance tests such as York Test, and I feel similarly. But if someone follows an elimination diet (excluding one food at a time) and keeps a track on how they are feeling and they see a real change in their symptoms then I don’t think that’s misguided at all – we should all follow what our bodies tell us more often.

V: Definitely. I wrote about this in my I’m not ashamed of getting a food intolerance blood test blog post.

I was too quick to believe I could trust an easy solution to tell me what was triggering my symptoms. If I'd done my research I would have realised ultimately elimination is (currently) the only guaranteed way of working out intolerances.

But the blood test result effectively put me on an elimination diet (albeit one that ruled out a lot of things at once!) which has taught me a huge amount about listening to my body and responding to it.

My food intolerance blood test results

My food intolerance blood test results

L: The only issue is that by self diagnosing/imposing a gluten free diet, people with Coeliac Disease miss out on essential support and information. There are possible longer term consequences of living with Coeliac Disease (CD) that are unlikely to be reviewed for lone rangers.

If someone suspects that they may have the disease I’d highly recommend talking to Coeliac UK and going into their GP armed with evidence and their suspicions.  Unfortunately a lot of GPs are still not very good when it comes to diagnosing CD. It can be a frustrating process but you should be forceful and if they won't test you, you should have a very clear reasoning from them on why they consider it so unlikely.

V: Thank you so much Lea! This has been so fascinating and we are not even part way through some of the topics I sent to you. Shall we carry on again next week? Same time same place? I really want to grill you on your feelings about Gluten Free going mainstream after your HBC article. Up for it?!

L: Let’s do it!

Lea Tierney is a freelancer and passionate food nerd helping others discover their Can Eat Attitude by sharing how she lives abundantly (not restrictedly) with Coeliac Disease and a vegan lifestyle. Check out her website for recipes, information on her workshops and if you're interested in the gluten free life a little hub of all Lea's articles on the subject