Study finds that certain people can be gluten-sensitive without having celiac disease
Gluten-free: If you’ve been paying attention to food labels, health articles and trendy diets over the last few years, you’ll be quite familiar with this term. Gluten-free everything seems to be all around us these days, along with a growing awareness of celiac disease, and it’s a topic that has taken on a life of its own.
Those who have celiac disease suffer gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, headache and fatigue; and a wheat allergy can prompt hives, itchy eyes or difficulty breathing. But there’s a segment of people without either condition, who get these symptoms anyway.
That's the conclusion of a recent study at Columbia University, which determined that non-celiac wheat sensitivity is a real medical problem, and not an imaginary syndrome driven by the current gluten-free craze. The study participants were people who had weakened intestinal linings due to eating wheat. When their bodies' immune system responded to the weakened intestines, it resulted in symptoms that looked like the symptoms of celiac disease, even though the people did not in fact have the disease.
"While further research is needed to fully understand what causes intestinal weakening, the study tells us even people who do not have either celiac disease or wheat allergy can be wheat-sensitive,” says Lauren Blechle, MS, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Covenant LifeStyle Centre in Lubbock.
These findings may be validation to people for whom both wheat allergy and celiac disease have been ruled out -- but who still experience nagging symptoms.
While less than 6 percent of the population is estimated to have non-celiac wheat sensitivity, the exact figures are not known. In the future, a blood test may be developed to diagnose non-celiac wheat sensitivity.
If you suspect have a wheat sensitivity, you may want to consult with a registered dietician to plan an elimination diet to test whether you are truly sensitive to wheat.
What is Gluten?
Gluten refers to a group of natural proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and grain offshoots like semolina, durum and spelt. Second only to sugar, gluten is our most commonly consumed ingredient – it’s found in breads, pastas, meat substitutes, soy sauce, beer, crackers, gravies, cereal and thousands of other products that rely on its glue-like properties to hold them together.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is a genetic disorder in which the patient’s immune cells attack the lining of the small intestine when it comes into contact with gluten. Over time, the lining of the intestine becomes damaged, reducing the body’s ability to absorb the vitamins, minerals and essential nutrients it needs to stay healthy. When celiac disease goes untreated, patients may lose weight, become fatigued, develop malnutrition or anemia. They may even develop diabetes, thyroid disease, osteoporosis or gastrointestinal cancer.
Tips on Going Wheat-Free
Some people who don’t experience gastrointestinal symptoms say that they feel better in general when they go wheat-free. And about 20 percent of healthy American adults actively avoid gluten, even when they have not been diagnosed with any related condition.
Are there health benefits to reducing one’s intake of foods containing gluten? There can be, but as with any diet, there are potential pitfalls. Always consult with your physician or a registered dietician before starting a specialized diet. Here are some of the things you’ll want to take into account if you are considering a wheat-free diet:
Can going wheat-free help me lose weight? Not necessarily. That is, if you are relying on processed foods that have had the gluten removed, you may be simply adding calories from another source. Food manufacturers often add substitute ingredients that are actually higher in sugar, sodium and fat to make their products taste better. In fact, a 2014 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food suggested that people who follow a gluten-free diet are actually at greater risk of obesity than their wheat-eating counterparts!
However, if you generally avoid those pre-packaged foods labeled gluten-free, and do more cooking at home, you may lose weight as a side benefit. Why? Because people who prepare their own wheat-free meals tend to use more whole foods, tend to eat more fruits and vegetables, and tend to snack less on processed foods. This commonsense approach to eating can aid in net weight loss.
Does going wheat-free have any hidden risks? Yes. “When you cut an entire food group out of your diet, you may be losing out on some essential nutrients,” cautions Blechle. “Since wheat offers one of our best sources of folic acid, iron and magnesium, going wheat-free brings extra challenges. Gluten-free foods that use potato flour or refined rice may not give you enough iron, which is critical for your health.”
Most Americans have been eating wheat products their whole lives; these are often fortified with extra iron and B vitamins, so when they switch to processed foods without gluten, they may be unknowingly risking iron deficiency.
Whether you are currently being treated for celiac disease, have a wheat allergy or simply wish to refine your diet, going wheat-free is not something to be taken lightly.
How do I go about following a wheat-free diet? After consulting your doctor, you’ll need to educate yourself on a whole range of foods and ingredients.
- Learn to read food labels to identify gluten.
- Learn which foods are naturally gluten-free.
- Identify alternatives to wheat flours and other gluten-containing ingredients so you can include them in your home recipes.
Base your recipes around what you can eat. Gluten-free flours include those made with corn, rice, sorghum, buckwheat, quinoa, arrowroot, chickpeas, tapioca and potato. Gluten-free proteins and fats include beef, chicken, fish, beans, milk, cheese, eggs, nuts, seeds and oils. Avoid processed or flavored meats; learn to cook them using your own spices and homemade sauces. And of course you can use all the fruits and vegetables you already enjoy – and find exciting ways to combine them.
As long as you are proceeding under your doctor’s supervision, going wheat-free can open a whole new chapter of health-conscious eating that can provide lifelong benefits.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.