Gluten: The Ins and Outs of Allergy Versus Intolerance

“Oh no, I can’t eat that I’m allergic to gluten!”

“Is that gluten free? I’m a coeliac!”

“I have a wheat intolerance, if I eat bread I feel really bloated!”

Have you heard people throwing these phrases around? What do they really mean? What is a gluten allergy and how is it different to a gluten or wheat intolerance?

The Basics

Gluten is a protein found in a number of commonly eaten grains (wheat, rye, barley, and contaminated oats). It is an allergen, much like peanuts and lactose that a large number of the population react unfavourably to in some way. Gluten allergy is known as coeliac disease.

With people who are allergic to gluten, when they eat a gluten containing food, the small intestine thinks it’s a harmful substance and make antibodies to try to fight it. This causes inflammation and swelling of the bowel and also stops absorption of nutrients. This can lead to long term or permanent damage to the bowel, including bowel cancer.

On the other hand, many people are intolerant to wheat and/or gluten, which means that it is not as harmful to their bowel as the damage for a coeliac, but does still cause mild inflammation, discomfort and bloating of the lower abdomen. People diagnosed with IBS normally find that removing or minimising gluten and/or wheat from the diet can reduce or even get rid of symptoms.

Many people believe that everyone is intolerant to gluten to some degree! This is because it is a pro-inflammatory chemical (see previous blog article for more info), meaning it causes cells inside the body to swell as opposed to anti-inflammatory food like fish and vegetables packed full of anti-oxidants.

How do I know if I’m allergic?

The symptoms from both allergy and intolerance are similar, main difference being that symptoms of an allergy are much more severe than those for an intolerance.

Symptoms include:

  • Diarrhoea or constipation;
  • Bloating or swollen abdomen;
  • Nausea and vomiting;
  • Wind;
  • Stomach cramps;
  • Weight loss;
  • Tiredness and irritability;
  • Anaemia.

If you are concerned, you can get tested – there is a blood test that can be done first and if you have the gene for the allergy you can then get a biopsy, but you need to eat gluten for the biopsy to show up positive. If you have mild symptoms and aren’t worried about getting tested, it makes sense to remove gluten from your diet, as long as you make sure you’re getting everything you need in terms of variety of lean meats and fish, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds and your body won’t miss out on all the good stuff it needs!

Should I stop eating gluten?

Gluten is found in processed carbohydrates and since we encourage you to eliminate these from your diet you’ll naturally be cutting down on the amount of gluten you eat. But the properties of this protein means that it is used as a thickener in a great number of other products like sauces, gravy and even chips (not that you should be eating any of these anyway…) so if you’re planning on cutting it out completely you’ll need to start checking the ingredients lists of all the food you buy.

Why Should I Stop?

If you have an allergy or intolerance it makes sense to remove the cause to fix the problem. There is no cure for coeliac disease, the only treatment is to eliminate gluten from the diet completely. Even if you don’t have the allergy, you may find that the post lunch sleepy feeling and needing a nap after a big session of carb loading and cake eating can be stopped by switching to The Chief Life nutrition recommendation of eating “REAL” food in the correct portions for your health status and fitness goals. Swapping your processed carbs for protein, vegetables and good fats can leave you feeling much more energetic and awake. Give it a go and see how you feel…

The Science

When a coeliac eats gluten, the finger like villi in the small intestine swell up. Normally nutrients like vitamins and minerals are absorbed between the villi but when the villi swell, the intestine becomes smooth and the nutrients can no longer be absorbed. Hence, weight loss and constant sickness result due to lack of appropriate nutrition.

Take Home Message

So, even if you’re not allergic to gluten or don’t have any of the symptoms of allergy or intolerance give it a go cutting out gluten for a minimum of 4 weeks and see how you feel! You might find that once you get rid of it, you won’t want to go back to feeling lethargic and bloated after eating – you will have found a new normal and you’ll feel AMAZING!

– Stace, “Make good choices”

Matthias Turner

I have a love for health and fitness, music and laughter as well as a deep passion to help people. Follow more great advice from Matty on Instagram.