Problems with gluten

It can be a friend or foe, depending on how you react to it.

May 28, 2020


Chances are you’ve heard different information and opinions about gluten. One source says you should eat it, but another says you shouldn’t. In this article, we take a closer look at gluten and how it can affect you and the foods you choose to eat. 

What is gluten and what foods contain it?

Gluten is a protein found in certain grains, including wheat, rye, barley and triticale. It can also be in products made from cross-pollinating (combining) any of these grains.

Common foods that contain gluten include bread, baked goods and pastas. Also, some foods contain additives, preservatives or derivatives made from grains with gluten. 

How do intolerances to gluten differ?

People can have different types of digestive and health problems caused by eating gluten. These include a wheat allergy, celiac disease and sensitivity to gluten. The symptoms of these conditions can be similar, so it’s important to know the difference.

A wheat allergy is a rare type of gluten intolerance. It can cause respiratory (breathing), digestive and skin irritations that range from mild to severe. It’s important to see an allergist to get the information and treatments that are right for you.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes a lifelong intolerance of gluten. When people who have celiac disease eat gluten, their immune system attacks and damages the villi — the hair-like structures in the small intestine that absorb nutrients. 

This damage can lead to not getting the vitamins and minerals you need, which in turn can cause nutritional imbalances. Left untreated, celiac disease can lead to other autoimmune conditions. In rare instances, it can also lead to intestinal cancer. 

Symptoms of celiac disease include: 

  • Digestive symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation 
  • Non-digestive symptoms, such as joint and muscle pain, headaches and fatigue 

The only way to treat celiac disease is to follow a lifelong, gluten-free diet. A gastrointestinal specialist can diagnose the disease. Blood work is done to look for gluten-related antibodies as well as genetic markers linked to celiac disease. 

To complete the diagnosis, a tissue sample will be taken from the upper intestine. This is done to measure the degree of damage to the villi.

Gluten sensitivity causes many symptoms of celiac disease but the intestines are not damaged. What isn’t known at this time is if there are any long-term negative health effects related to gluten sensitivity. 

The amount of gluten a person can handle varies greatly. There is no standard test to detect gluten sensitivity. But an elimination diet, which involves not eating certain foods for a while, can be done. 

If an allergy or celiac disease are ruled out, you may benefit from not eating or limiting foods with gluten. If you decide to follow a gluten-free diet, a dietitian can help you:

  • Plan for meals and grocery shopping
  • Make good choices when eating out
  • Meet your nutritional needs

Should I not eat gluten?

Unless you have any of the above conditions, you don’t need to eat a gluten-free diet. Gluten gives baked goods a chewy texture. To make up for this, gluten-free foods often include other starches that have little to no nutritional value. 

Also, gluten is in the part of the grain that contains vitamins and minerals. When the whole grain isn’t used, these nutrients are lost. If you do eat grains, choose whole-grain foods that offer the most fiber, nutrients and minerals compared to non-whole grains. 

If you decide to not eat gluten, there are many whole grains that don’t contain it. These include quinoa, amaranth, millet, wild rice, brown rice, teff and gluten-free oats.

To meet with a Polyclinic dietitian, ask your doctor for a referral. Then call The Polyclinic Nutrition Management services at 1-206-860-2208 to make an appointment. Also, check with your insurance provider to make sure medical nutrition therapy is covered.

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The information provided is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for professional health care. You should consult an appropriate health care professional for your specific needs.