Your guide to going gluten-free

Whether you’re coeliac or just wanting to cut down on gluten, here’s what you should know – plus easy gluten-free meal ideas.

Once upon a time, before gluten-free eating was hip, meal time could be a bland affair for those with coeliac disease.

But with news even Vegemite is spreading the gluten-free love, it’s clear that times have changed.

Few restaurants worth their salt would dare shun a coeliac today, with everything from pizza to pasta, gelato and beer being dished up minus the pesky protein.

But Coeliac Australia says the industry is not going far enough, and is encouraging food businesses to treat the disease more seriously in a campaign to mark Coeliac Awareness Week from March 13 to 20.

So whether you have coeliac disease or just want to cut down on gluten, experts have shared some tips on what you can do in your own kitchen.

What are the symptoms of coeliac disease?

The most common signs include:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Iron deficiency and related fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Delayed growth in children

Coeliac Australia says some people experience no obvious symptoms but suffer internal inflammation and damage from gluten – a protein found in the grains wheat, barley, oats and rye.

In Australia, 1 in 70 people in Australia have coeliac disease, but 80 per cent of them are undiagnosed.

“If coeliac disease remains untreated, in the long term there is an increased risk of osteoporosis, infertility, some forms of cancer, liver disease and an increased risk of developing other autoimmune diseases,” says Coeliac Australia health advocacy officer Penny Dellsperger.

She recommends people get screened for coeliac disease if they have experienced high-risk symptoms, suffer another autoimmune disease or have an immediate relative with coeliac disease.

It’s important to be tested for coeliac disease before making any changes to your diet, as removing gluten before testing will interfere with the results.

Which nutrients do people need to focus on when going gluten-free?

“When initially diagnosed, there may be some nutrient deficiencies that need to be monitored and supplemented while the healing process starts to occur,” says Penny, an accredited practising dietitian.

She says the most important nutrients to monitor include iron, B12, folate, calcium, phosphate, vitamin D, zinc and magnesium.

As a gluten-free diet can be low in fibre, ensure you are consuming enough fruit, vegetables and legumes (seven serves a day is recommended), and gluten-free wholegrains (4-6 serves/day).

What are some good gluten-free meal substitutes?

A healthy diet should be based on unprocessed foods which are naturally gluten-free, regardless of whether we have coeliac disease, says Penny.

She suggests going “back to basics” with a menu full of fresh fruit and vegetables, unprocessed meat, fish and chicken, nuts, seeds, legumes, eggs, milk and other gluten-free foods like rice, corn, potato and soy.

“When preparing your evening meal, you may find that with some slight tweaks, your usual favourites can continue to make their regular appearance on the dinner table,” she says.

But beware of less obvious sources of gluten that can be found in foods like baking powder, canned soups, confectionery, hot chips, sausages and processed meats, seasoning and yeast extract spreads.

Dietitians Association of Australia spokeswoman Lisa Donaldson encourages people to book a consultation with an accredited practising dietitian to give their menu a makeover.

“In doing so a person will be best advised on how to replace gluten containing foods with nourishing gluten-free options,” she says.

“There are a lot of gluten-free items out there that are overly processed and highly refined, offering little to no nutritional benefit. So, navigating this space with an expert is a great place to start.”

Peas, baked beans, chickpeas, dried apricots, red lentils, amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat and some gluten-free mueslis are free in gluten and high in protein.

Lisa’s easy gluten-free meal ideas

Gluten-free breakfast ideas:

  • 2 eggs, 1 piece of gluten-free toast with avocado, sautéed spinach, mushrooms and tomato.
  • 2 gluten-free Weet-Bix with milk, yoghurt, berries and sunflower seeds. Zap in the blender to make a smoothie if you are in a rush.

Gluten-free lunch ideas:

  • Chicken salad with brown rice, leafy greens, cold roasted vegetables and a sprinkling of feta or olives for flavour.
  • Asian-style soup with buckwheat noodles, tofu and Asian greens.
  • Gluten-free sushi or Vietnamese rice paper rolls with no soy sauce.

Gluten-free dinner ideas:

  • Baked salmon with homemade sweet potato chips and half a plate of salad
  • San choy bau: cook lean turkey mince with grated vegetables, using chilli, coriander and tamari for flavour. Serve in a lettuce cup with vermicelli rice noodles.

Gluten-free snack ideas:

  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Vegetable sticks with hummus
  • Rice cakes with ricotta, tomato and baby spinach
  • Popcorn
  • Natural yoghurt with berries
  • Fresh fruit

Written by Elissa Doherty.