The gluten-free diet
- If you have coeliac disease and/or dermatitis herpetiformis you have to avoid gluten for life.
- The gluten-free diet is the only treatment for the condition.
- On the gluten-free diet you can eat many foods including meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, rice and potatoes.
- You can also eat gluten-free substitute foods and processed foods that don't contain gluten.
If you have coeliac disease, your immune system reacts to gluten and leads to damage to the lining of your gut. This causes symptoms of coeliac disease, including bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, tiredness and headaches. This only happens if gluten is eaten.
By avoiding all gluten (some people also need to avoid oats), your gut can heal and your symptoms should improve.
The gluten-free diet is the only treatment for coeliac disease.
On the gluten-free diet you can eat any naturally gluten-free foods, such as:
- fruit and vegetables
You can also eat processed foods which don't contain gluten, such as ready meals and soups. Our Food and Drink Directory lists thousands of these.
Some ingredients are confusing as they can be made from wheat but the final ingredient is gluten-free, for example glucose syrup. Read more about information on labels and ingredients like this.
Our Gluten-free Checklist can help you identify which foods are safe. Download a copy on the right hand side of this page.
There are also gluten-free substitute foods available, such as specially made gluten-free bread, flour, pasta, crackers and biscuits. These are available on prescription, in the Free From section of the supermarkets and health food stores.
There are plenty of both alcoholic and soft drinks which don’t contain gluten:
- fruit juice
- flavoured water
- fizzy drinks
There are also specially made gluten-free beers and lagers available. You can usually find them in the Free From section of supermarkets and some health food stores.
The following drinks are not suitable for people with coeliac disease:
- barley squashes
After diagnosis of coeliac disease, healing and how long it takes to feel better on a gluten-free diet can vary.
Some people feel significantly better within a few days of starting a gluten-free diet but some people may see more of a gradual improvement in their symptoms or that one symptom improves before another.
It can take between six months and up to five years (in some cases longer) for the gut damage caused by eating gluten to fully heal. Several factors are thought to be involved in the variable time taken for the gut to heal, including age and severity of gut damage at diagnosis.
If your symptoms have not improved or have become worse since starting a gluten-free diet, speak to your GP, dietitian and/or gastroenterologist who are best placed to monitor your response to the gluten-free diet.
Following a gluten-free diet is a learning process, not only for you but also for your family and friends. Mistakes can happen whilst you’re following a gluten-free diet, especially if you have only recently been diagnosed.
If you have coeliac disease and eat gluten by mistake, you would usually start to have symptoms a few hours after eating it and the symptoms can last from a few hours to several days. However, the effects vary from person to person, and depend on how much gluten you’ve eaten, how sensitive you are and how long you have been on a gluten-free diet.
If you have coeliac disease, eating gluten damages your gut. If you make the occasional mistake and eat gluten by accident, it’s unlikely to cause lasting gut damage.
What to do if you have symptoms
- If you have diarrhoea or you are vomiting, it’s important to keep yourself well hydrated by drinking lots of water.
- Some people find that taking medication to treat constipation, diarrhoea or headaches can ease symptoms, but speak to your pharmacist or GP.
- The most important thing is to get back onto your gluten-free diet to try to prevent further symptoms.
- If your symptoms are very severe or do not improve, speak to your GP.