The thing about gluten intolerance is that it is an ambiguous term. When we talk about gluten intolerance, we are generally talking about two quite different conditions: coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity.
Coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity – what’s the difference?
Coeliac disease is a disease in which the small intestine is hypersensitive to gluten, leading to digestive issues. People with coeliac disease cannot tolerate even very small amounts of gluten. When gluten enters their bloodstream, an immune response is triggered that damages the lining of the small intestine and causes symptoms like nausea, bloating, vomiting, diarrhoea, fatigue and severe pains in the abdomen, among others. Ongoing exposure to gluten in coeliacs can lead to serious and potentially irreversible conditions such as nerve damage, irritable bowel syndrome and inability to absorb nutrients.
Gluten sensitivity is a related condition which is less severe and does not cause ongoing damage to the intestine. People with gluten sensitivity can tolerate small amounts of gluten.
No medications have yet been proven to treat coeliac disease, so diets consisting wholly of gluten free foods are a must for coeliacs. Gluten free diets generally avoid wheat, rye, barley and related whole grain products such as spelt, bulgur (burghul) and triticale. Some diets of only gluten free foods also rule out oats.
While a diet containing only gluten free foods can contain an array of nutritious foods, for people with normal levels of gluten tolerance, consuming only gluten free foods means denying a range of common nutritious foods. Gluten is not essential in the diet, but many whole grains containing gluten also contain vitamins and minerals with great nutritional benefits. Including plenty of whole grains in the diet is linked to health benefits such as reduced risk of heart disease, increased dietary fibre for digestive function, weight management, and an increase in folic acid and other B vitamins that help the body form red blood cells, as well as an increase in iron to carry oxygen through the blood. People who only eat gluten free foods, whether coeliac, gluten sensitive or gluten tolerant, often suffer from vitamin deficiencies.
If you wish to only eat gluten free foods, it is a good idea to supplement the above vitamins and minerals in your diet in order to avoid deficiency. Vitamin supplements are available at our online store. Earlier this year, our nutritionist and digestive health expert Megan Crockhart looked at studies exploring whether oats are gluten free. Find out what she discovered in her blog post here.