The Gluten-Free Diet:
Is Wheat Intolerance Making You Sick?

wheat intolerance

More people are turning to a gluten-free diet every day, as they find themselves increasingly suffering from symptoms associated with wheat intolerance. This is not an easy thing to do, as gluten can be found in most of the foods typical to our Western diet. Still, if you regularly suffer from symptoms of gluten sensitivity, such as bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain, tiredness and irritability, trying a gluten-free diet may be worth the effort.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a combination of proteins (gliadin and glutenin) found in a certain family of cereal grains, such as wheat, rye, barley and spelt. It is what nourishes the young grain plant during germination, and is what helps create the structure that gives bread dough elasticity and contributes to its shape and chewiness (think of bagels and pizza crust). Gluten powder is often added by manufacturers to plain wheat flour to get bread dough to improve its ability to rise, give the bread more structure, and increase its protein content. 

Gluten intolerance vs. celiac disease

Like lactose intolerance (the inability to digest milk products), gluten intolerance is an inability to digest the gluten protein. The immune system reacts to the presence of gluten by causing inflammation, so you get uncomfortable symptoms like gas and bloating. 

Celiac disease, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disorder that is more serious. Instead of attacking the gluten, as in wheat intolerance, the body’s immune system instead reacts by attacking its own tissues, causing permanent damage to the lining of the small intestine. 

If celiac disease continues undiagnosed, the intestine eventually loses the ability to properly absorb nutrients. Untreated, it can lead to serious problems such as osteoporosis, joint pain, infertility, skin rashes and cancer, and increases the risk of death 400%.

Doctors believe the number of people with true celiac disease may be exaggerated. However, they agree that gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity may be quite common. An estimated 1 in 100 people have celiac disease, but according to a study performed by researchers at San Antonio Hospital in Tomezzo, Italy, the number of people sensitive to gluten may be as high as 7% [1]. If you suspect you have celiac disease, a simple test for gluten antibodies can confirm it. 

Wheat Intolerance on the Rise

Celiac disease was more rare 60 years ago, when it affected only about 1 person in 2,500. Part of the explanation is that the disease went undiagnosed much of the time. But even though the rate of diagnosis has gone up, scientists believe the rate of the disease has also increased fourfold since the 1950s, they are not exactly sure why. 

A Mayo Clinic study performed by Dr. Joseph Murray and researchers compared blood samples of people from the 1950s with those of today. The older blood samples showed a 75% lower rate of celiac disease [2]. Murray says “whatever has happened with celiac disease has happened since 1950.” He continued, “It suggests something has happened in a pervasive fashion from the environmental perspective.” 

Although the amount of wheat we consume has not really increased, the type of wheat has changed through different hybrids being created to increase yield. Also, as Murray notes, “Many of the processed foods we eat were not in existence 50 years ago.” Many things are added to wheat-based products during processing, from vitamins and minerals to gluten and a wide range of chemicals and preservatives.

Why you may want to try going gluten-free

Even if you are not gluten-sensitive, you may want to consider following a gluten-free diet. Many say that removing gluten from their diet has given them more energy and has helped them lose weight. When you figure that the most commonly consumed gluten products are breads and baked goods, it’s not surprising that cutting them from your diet will likely lead to weight loss. After all, bread, cakes and cookies are all high-glycemic foods and turn quickly to sugar in your bloodstream. 

Gluten foods to avoid 

More things than you might imagine contain gluten. The following foods and items containing gluten should be avoided:

  • Grain-based products: Foods made with wheat, rye, barley, bran and bulgur.
  • Oats: Although oats themselves are gluten-free, they are often contaminated with wheat products, so check to see if the package says they are gluten-free.
  • Beer: (because of the barley) and grain-based alcohol.
  • Processed foods: Read the label on all processed foods and manufactured items you buy, as many of them contain wheat products (soy sauce, processed meats, candy bars, vitamins, lipstick and toothpaste, to name a few).

Gluten-free foods

Although it may take some advance planning to follow a gluten-free diet, it’s not impossible. Every day more foods appear on store shelves that are gluten-free, and many restaurants have gotten on the bandwagon and put gluten-free items on their menus. Even bread and pasta can now be relatively easily found in most major supermarkets.

The easiest way to avoid gluten is to cook your own food at home. Aim for foods common to the Mediterranean Diet, which includes the following:

  • vegetables
  • poultry and fish
  • lean meat
  • fresh eggs
  • beans
  • nuts
  • fruit
  • dairy products

There are also still plenty of gluten-free carbohydrates available to accompany your meals, such as these:

  • potatoes
  • rice
  • corn and cornmeal
  • quinoa
  • buckwheat

Most people have no trouble digesting wheat, but if you suffer from some of the symptoms of wheat intolerance, consider giving a gluten-free diet a try. Before you try it, however, you should consult with your health professional to be sure you develop a gluten-free meal plan to ensure you still get the important nutrients you need.

[1] Bizzaro N, Tozzoli R, Villalta D, Fabris M, Tonutti E. Cutting-edge issues in celiac disease and in gluten intolerance.Clin. Rev. Allergy Immunol. doi:10.1007/s12016-010-8223-1 (2010). 

[2] Murray JA, Van Dyke C, Plevak MF, Dierkhising RA, Zinsmeister AR, Melton LJ III. Trends in the identification and clinical features of celiac disease in a North American community, 1950–2001. Clin. Gastroenterol. Hepatol. 1(1), 19–27 (2003).

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