You may have heard about ‘gluten-free’ foods and diets, but what is gluten? And why do some people avoid eating it? Some people choose to avoid eating foods that contain gluten (such as bread, pasta and biscuits) because they think it is healthy to do so, but some people have to avoid it completely because it makes them very ill. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Doctors don’t fully understand why, but some people’s immune systems produce antibodies that attack substances found in gluten, causing damage in the digestive system. This is known as coeliac disease and it can be very debilitating. Damage to the small intestine means that nutrients can’t be absorbed properly and this can cause tiredness, headaches, hair loss, anaemia and weight loss, as well as unpleasant digestive symptoms.
Coeliac disease is fairly common – around one in 100 people are affected – and can be diagnosed through a blood test and a biopsy. If you are affected, you will probably know by the time you are in your teens and you will know how to manage your symptoms. Talk to your GP if you are at all worried you may have coeliac disease.
People with coeliac disease must follow a gluten-free diet. Do not be too down-hearted, though – it is possible to follow a rich and varied diet while cutting out gluten. Find out more about coeliac disease at Coeliac UK’s website.