A food intolerance is where the body has difficulty digesting certain foods, causing unpleasant physical symptoms. Increasingly more and more people have come to believe they are intolerant to gluten, a mixture of proteins found in wheat and related grains. It is impossible to know how many of these people truly have an intolerance as the symptoms of bloating, stomach cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting can often also be caused by other conditions.
Coeliac disease is more serious than just an intolerance to wheat. While those who are gluten intolerant many experience varying levels of discomfort as a result of their bodies finding it difficult to digest wheat, those with coeliac suffer an adverse reaction to gluten that causes the small intestine to become inflamed and unable to absorb nutrients.
The condition isn’t an allergy or an intolerance to gluten, but an autoimmune condition. This is where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue and in the case of coeliac, it mistakes substances found inside gluten as a threat to the body and attacks them.
It isn’t clear what the cause of the condition is, but it appears to be a mixture of genetics and environmental factors. Having other conditions may also increase your risk of developing other health problems such as type 1 diabetes.
Symptoms of coeliac disease
Depending on the severity of the condition the symptoms caused can range from mild to serious. Diarrhoea and other gut related symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, indigestion, constipations and vomiting are common symptom; caused by the body not being able to fully absorb nutrients. Other more general symptoms described the NHS include fatigue, unexpected weight loss, rash, peripheral neuropathy (tingling in the hands and feet), difficulty getting pregnant, disorders that affect co-ordination and swelling of the hands feet and legs.
If left unmanaged coeliac can also lead to malnutrition as a result of not being able to digest food properly. This in turn can lead to symptoms of fatigue and a lack of energy and in children may result in a failure to grow as expected.
NICE guidelines recommend testing for coeliac disease when the above signs and symptoms become apparent. For coeliac, a blood test will show if coeliac disease antibodies are present. If this is the case the blood test will then be followed by a biopsy of the gut to confirm the diagnosis. If you are diagnosed with coeliac disease, then you may then need further tests to assess how the condition has affected you.
If you are suffering from gluten intolerance, then it is harder for your GP to diagnose as the symptoms can also relate to a number of other conditions. It is likely your GP will recommend an elimination diet to determine the cause of your symptoms; which involves simply cutting all wheat out of your diet for a period of time.
Both coeliac disease and gluten intolerance are treated by simply cutting all foods with gluten in out of your diet. Unless labelled as gluten free versions, the main foods that you should cut out include: bread, pasta, cereals, biscuits, crackers, cakes, pastries, pies, gravies and sauces. It is also generally advised that those with coeliac should also avoid oats, as although they do not contain gluten that can easily become contaminated by other cereals that do. The NHS also advise that you check the label on food packaging as many other items also contain gluten, particularly those that are processed.
Main foods that don’t contain gluten and are safe to eat include: most dairy products, fruit and vegetables, meats and fish (excluding those that are breaded or battered) potatoes, rice and rice noodles and gluten free flours such as rice, corn, soy and potato.
And one last thing to remember, some nutritionists believe that if you are gluten intolerant, eating gluten can create inflammation in the stomach and the body. It is not clear if this has been proved, but it may be a contributing factor in people who are struggling with inflammation or chronic pain.