Giving up gluten doesn't have to mean a life without pasta, bread or the occasional cake. With a few clever food swaps – along with gluten-free food brands and alternatives to traditional flours – it's possible to enjoy many of your mealtime favourites.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in a number of grains including wheat, rye and barley. Contained in most baking flours and many processed meals, it's the magic ingredient that makes pizza dough stretchy and gives cakes and breads their spongy texture - as well as helping to improve the texture of gravies and sauces.
While the food manufacturing industry loves it, for those with coeliac disease (a chronic auto-immune digestive disorder believed to affect around one in every 100 Britons), eating just a small amount of gluten can be very nasty indeed – causing chronic diarrhoea, anaemia, abdominal pain, weight loss and fatigue.
If you are allergic to gluten, intolerant or diagnosed as having coeliac disease (your GP can do a blood test to confirm), the most common foods to avoid are bread, pasta, cereal, biscuits, crackers, cakes and pastries and pies - along with gravies and sauces. Many foods are naturally gluten-free – such as meat, fruit, vegetables, cheese, potatoes, rice and pulses - so make these your diet staples.
Swap packaged cereals for amaranth muesli
Health experts commonly suggest we swap packaged breakfast cereals (laden with salt and sugar) for porridge – but while oats don't contain gluten, they may be prepared in an environment where wheat may be present, a reason many coeliacs prefer to avoid them. Instead, try amaranth muesli - which can be bought ready-prepared from health food shops - and serve with fruit and milk. The nutritious grain is a complete form of vegetable protein with nearly twice as much protein as brown rice and a good source of iron and cancer-fighting selenium, making it worth adding to your diet.
Swap cous cous for quinoa
Cous cous, the favourite of Middle Eastern cuisine, may be the perfect accompaniment to a tasty tagine but this type of pasta is strictly off the menu on a gluten-free diet. Cous cous is a healthy option under normal circumstances (high in protein, selenium and potassium) and the good news is you can enjoy an equally healthy alternative that tastes just as good. Quinoa provides all nine essential amino acids, making it a healthy choice. Try it in place of cous cous with a tagine or create a protein-packed quinoa salad with lean chicken pieces, tomatoes, cucumber, spring onions and mint leaves.
Swap wheat noodles for rice or buckwheat
Wheat noodles may be off the menu but there are plenty of tasty alternatives to try. In addition to brown rice noodles, gluten-free options include Shirataki or tofu noodles and rice vermicelli, both of which work well in Asian dishes. Japanese soba noodles, which are made entirely from buckwheat are low in calories and a good source of protein. Just be sure to look for those labelled 100 per cent buckwheat noodles, as some varieties are made with wheat flour.
Swap regular sandwiches for gluten-free bread
Buying shop bought food and eating out can pose a risk for those with coelic disease – which makes eating lunch on the go a challenge. Make your sandwiches at home and you can control the ingredients, from the bread to the condiments. Fillings to try include egg, tuna, chicken and non-processed cheese - mayonnaise and plain mustard are also gluten-free. Most supermarkets stock gluten-free bread and rolls. If the long-life ones you've sampled seem dry and heavy, try Marks and Spencer's Free From Wheat range. In addition to bread rolls, loaves, cakes, pasta, crumpets and cakes, selected M&S stores offer two ready-made gluten-free sandwich options: British ham with salad and cheddar cheese ploughmans.
Swap pasta for polenta
Most supermarkets stock gluten-free pasta, but switch to polenta and you'll enjoy a host of health benefits. Made from maize (corn) and naturally gluten-free, this Italian favourite is easy to cook and, although the consistency is different to pasta, makes the perfect accompaniment to any number of sauces and vegetable ragouts. Polenta is an excellent source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and B vitamins, which help the body convert food into energy and support healthy nervous system function. Because polenta is a whole grain, it also contains a healthy amount of fibre, good for regulating digestion and cholesterol levels.
Swap shop-bought bread for homemade
While you can buy gluten-free loaves and breads, nothing beats homemade. Thankfully there are some good gluten-free flours available (try DS Dietary Specialities and Doves Farm) which make getting great results easy every time. Gluten-free flours (made from rice, soy, chestnut, buckwheat, corn, potato, or chickpea) tend to be less cohesive and produce crumblier results, but recipes tailored to use them often account for this. Remember that standard baking powder can contain gluten. Xantham gum, available in specialist health food stores and some supermarkets, is a gluten-free baking powder which helps to replace the elastic qualities gluten-free flours lack – making pastry easier to roll and work with.
Take-away pizza for gluten-free
If you love pizza, you'll be pleased to hear that many high street restaurants now offer gluten-free options. Coeliac UK has worked hard to bring awareness and choice to big name eateries and according to the charity Pizza Express, Pizza Hut, Domino's Pizza and Prezzo all have gluten-free pizzas on the menu. Most supermarkets stock gluten-free pizza bases (try the Dietary Specials range) and if you want to make your own at home, that's easy too. Mix gluten-free flour (200g) with a little olive oil (2 tbsp), a sachet of fast-action dried yeast (7g) and warm water (125-150ml) and season with salt, pepper and rosemary. Pulse in a food mixer, tip onto a work surface and knead until the dough comes together. Add your toppings, leave to stand for 10 minutes then bake in a hot oven until the dough is crisp.
Have you recently started a gluten-free diet? Leave your tips in the comments box below...