Judging by the prevalence of gluten free food options these days, you might have asked yourself the question: How common is gluten intolerance?
For years, gluten-free foods were the domain of obscure health food stores. They were the necessary but off-the-beaten-path food choices available to people who could not consume the gluten proteins. But now, they are everywhere, from the aisles of major supermarkets to restaurant menus to internet banner ads – all touting their gluten-free options.
So what, exactly, is gluten intolerance?
The Prevalence Of This Wheat Allergy In The United States: How Common Is Gluten Intolerance?
Gluten intolerance, also known as gluten sensitivity, is a food intolerance condition. It afflicts between 0.6% and 13% of the general population. Gluten intolerance is actually made up of three separate conditions: celiac disease, wheat allergy, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.1 In all three cases, your body cannot tolerate gluten in your diet, but for different reasons.
Some of the symptoms common to all three types of gluten intolerance include diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain.2 But each type of intolerance also has its own set of symptoms.
What Is Gluten? Is Gluten Intolerance A Food Allergy?
Gluten is a family of proteins found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley, and oats. Gliadin and glutenin are the two main proteins. Rye, barley, and oats each contain additional proteins with similar structures.3
Celiac Disease is a genetic disease in which the immune system overreacts to the presence of gluten in the small intestine, thereby damaging the tissues.4Symptoms may include:
- Recurring abdominal bloating and pain
- Chronic diarrhea/constipation
- Weight loss
- Joint pain
- Tingling numbness in the legs
- Iron-deficiency anemia (a common nutritional deficit found in patients with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity; linked to
fatigue, brain fog, and mental clarity issues)5
- Dermatitis herpetiformis (an intensely itchy skin rash that affects about 10% of celiac sufferers)6,7
Wheat allergy is an autoimmune disorder most common in children, with symptoms ranging from hives to anaphylaxis. An allergic reaction can be triggered by very small amounts of wheat.8
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a condition that causes intestinal symptoms related to eating gluten-containing food, in people who are not otherwise affected by either celiac disease or wheat allergy.9 People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity often have symptoms that mimic irritable bowel syndrome, a gastrointestinal tract disorder.2,3
Common symptoms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity include:
- Bloating, gas, or abdominal pain
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Brain fog
- Joint pain
- Numbness in the legs, arms, or fingers
Eating a gluten-free diet may be a good place to start for people experiencing these symptoms. The most common way to deal with non-celiac gluten sensitivity is to simply refrain from eating gluten.
What Foods Contain Gluten? Wheat, Rye, And Other Common Foods
In addition to the broad category of wheat, rye, and barley, the following variants of wheat also contain gluten:
Many common wheat-containing food categories also have gluten. These include:
- Bread and pastries
- Breakfast cereals
- Flour tortillas
- Anything else that contains “wheat flour” as an ingredient
Gluten may also hide out in potato chips, french fries, candy and candy bars, and meat substitutes including seitan.13
Starting A Wheat-Free Diet For Gut And Overall Health: What Are The Benefits Of A Gluten-Free Lifestyle?
People who suffer from any of the three gluten intolerance conditions must typically eat a low-gluten or gluten-free diet to manage their symptoms.
Eating a wheat-free diet may even be beneficial for people without gluten intolerance. Studies have shown that eating a low-gluten, high-fiber diet results in less discomfort and bloating than eating foods laden with gluten. The low-gluten diet has also been linked to moderate weight loss as well as altering the gut microbiome.14,15 It is not yet clear, though, whether the benefit comes from the lack of gluten or the quality of the fiber in the diet. It’s important to note that foods labeled as “gluten-free” can still be relatively high in calories, unhealthy fats, and carbohydrates. Talk to your doctor about whether or not a gluten-free diet is right for you.
When you remove gluten-containing foods such as wheat or rye from your diet, you also remove any fiber coming from those sources. Therefore, dietary fiber must come from other sources of fiber.16
However, there are several downsides to a gluten-free diet as well:
- Eating gluten-free is time-consuming, restrictive, and expensive.17
- Many gluten-free foods on the market today are very low in fiber and natural nutritional content.18 Removing whole wheat from the diet removes a major source of dietary fiber.
- Plus, eating gluten-free may result in nutritional deficiencies. The wheat in bread and cereals is often fortified with B vitamins. On
the other hand, the gluten-free replacements, which include white rice, tapioca, and other flours, often are not fortified.19
What Foods Should You Eat If You Are Trying To Start A New Gluten-Free Diet?
Many foods in their unprocessed form are naturally gluten-free. These include:
- Meat and poultry
- Fish and seafood
- Beans, legumes, and nuts
There are also many grain alternatives to wheat, rye, and barley. They include:
- Nut flours
- Oats (check that they are free from contamination from other gluten-containing grains)
Additionally, eating a low-FODMAP diet could be beneficial to people looking to start a new gluten-free diet. FODMAPs are a category of sugars found in foods ranging from fruits and veggies to nuts, seeds, and grains. Foods in the regular FODMAP diet are poorly absorbed in the small intestine, leading to IBS-like symptoms such as gas and bloating. These foods include wheat, rye, and barley, which are foods high in gluten. So, people suffering from gluten intolerance may be able to avoid these foods by following a low-FODMAP diet.21 Always consult with your physician first before taking this step.
Is The Gluten-Free Lifestyle For Everyone?
Gluten-free eating has developed into a diet craze the past few years. This is aided by celebrities eating a gluten-free diet. At present, about 17% of people in the United States eat gluten-free products.22
Eating a gluten-free diet is often necessary for those who have one of the three forms of gluten intolerance. However, despite its popularity, it is not recommended for everyone. As you can see from above, voluntarily eating a diet of only gluten-free foods may result in nutrient deficiencies and other dietary problems. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare professional before making significant changes to your diet; they will be able to advise on whether or not you should avoid gluten.