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Food Sensitivity Spotlight: Celiac Disease

Gluten-free diets are everywhere, and there is a very good chance someone in your life has recently cut wheat and gluten from their diet. Wheat and gluten are particularly vilified in the CrossFit or Paleo community, but does wheat deserve the poor treatment it so readily receives? This blog post hopes to discuss who should totally eliminate wheat and gluten from their diets, and those would can live with wheat products.

What is a food allergy?

Before speaking directly about wheat allergies or sensitivities, it helps to know what exactly food allergies are. As we covered in our last blog post, a food allergy is an adverse reaction caused by an immune response to a food protein. A food intolerance or sensitivity, however, is a negative reaction to a food that is not related to the immune system. Unlike food poisoning, which you get from consuming contaminated food and can happen to anyone who comes in contact with that food, a food allergen, intolerance, or sensitivity is specific to the individual.

Knowing you have a true allergy and not a sensitivity or intolerance is important, because more than 150 people die each year due to their allergy. While a wheat allergy can be more common in children, it is also one of the most common allergies for children to grow out of. About 65% of all children with a wheat allergy will outgrow it by the time they are 12 years old – so why do we have so many adults cutting wheat out of their diets?

Part of that could be attributed to the rise of awareness to Celiac Disease, which is more of a “hypersensitivity” to gluten, rather than a true allergy. The other reason could be tied to this awareness, and the increasing availability of gluten-free products and foods. We will discuss these reasons next.

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease (CD) is often considered with the category of ‘food allergies’ because it involves an immune reaction to gluten, which is the protein found in wheat and other grains. Those with CD will experience nutrient malabsorption and damage to the intestine due to the body’s reaction to gluten.

However, unlike other food allergies, most of the reaction symptoms to gluten are mainly gastrointestinal, and other common food allergy symptoms that cause facial or throat swelling and pain, including anaphylaxis, are not present. This is not to say that CD shouldn’t be taken seriously. In addition to the discomfort and decreased quality of life by those suffering from chronic gastrointestinal distress, those with CD experience nutrient malabsorption and damage to the intestine due to the body’s reaction to gluten. The only relief from the symptoms of CD are avoiding gluten, and it is much more important that those with CD completely avoid all products containing gluten or derived from gluten than those with a wheat intolerance or sensitivity.

Those with a wheat sensitivity will react to gluten, but in a much less intense way. Those with a wheat sensitivity can benefit from cutting down on the wheat in their diet, and may experience relief from things like brain fog, joint pain, and fatigue, but they are less at risk that those with a true allergy or CD.

What should I do if I think I have a sensitivity or allergy?

The first step in determining if you have a sensitivity, allergy, or CD is getting tested by your doctor or allergist. They will be able to determine what is causing you the most problems. and how you can alter your diet and lifestyle to avoid those foods.

For total relief, those with a wheat allergy or CD should completely cut wheat out of their diets, while those with a wheat intolerance or sensitivity can most likely tolerate a small amount of gluten. This is totally dependent on the individual and is best managed by working with an allergist to determine a dietary plan that will test one’s tolerance to wheat and the physiological response to being wheat-free.

For a full list of foods with gluten or gluten derivatives, the University of Nebraska has a comprehensive list.

For more information on the differences between a wheat allergy, intolerance, or Celiac Disease, please consult your local physician or your nearest BreatheAmerica center.