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What is gluten, and do you really need to avoid it?

Gluten is a word that’s been circulating in the health and wellness world for a long time. Contained in wheat, it can cause symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea and fatigue in those who have celiac disease or an intolerance. However, there’s some controversy about whether or not those of us who can tolerate it should eliminate it from our diets for health reasons. So what exactly is gluten anyway? And how does it affect our bodies? We’ll break down the truth about the wheat protein that seems to be on everyone’s lips (if only figuratively). If you believe you’re suffering from an allergy or illness, consult your physician.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein in grains such as wheat, rye and barley. It helps foods like pizza doughs, pie crusts and other pastries to rise when cooking. You can find it in a variety of foods both whole and processed.

Gluten consists of two proteins: gliadin and glutenin. These proteins link together to form sticky chains called gluten strands. The long chains attract water molecules which helps dough rise and develop flavor while it cooks.

Gluten may not be bad or good for you; it affects everyone differently. According to Dr. Leffler at Harvard Medical School, it’s not necessary for a healthy diet, but certain foods that contain it give your body valuable vitamins and fiber. When you cut out foods with gluten, you may need to take supplementary vitamins.

If you are considering going gluten-free, here’s what you need to know.

Who needs to avoid gluten?

The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology recommends that people “should be seen by their primary care provider or referred to a gastroenterologist” if they have any concern about changing their diet.

There are three main types of people who need to avoid gluten. They are:
— People who have celiac disease.
— Or who have an intolerance or sensitivity.
— Or who have a wheat allergy.

What is celiac disease?

If you’re not familiar with celiac disease, then you may wonder what it is and how it affects those who have the condition. Celiac disease has become more talked about in recent years due to an increase in people learning of its existence. However, according to research conducted by the Mayo Clinic, this illness affects approximately one in every 100 U.S. adults today.

Celiac disease is a condition that affects the small intestine when it tries to process gluten, causing an adverse reaction. The reason behind this reaction has to do with immune response. It is not technically an allergy, but rather an adverse reaction to the protein itself, which causes inflammation and damage to the small intestine lining.

When someone with celiac disease eats gluten, they can experience symptoms such as diarrhea, weight loss and anemia. The only way to treat celiac disease is by following a lifelong gluten-free diet. Most celiac patients experience drastic improvements in their health within days of eliminating gluten.

What is gluten intolerance or sensitivity?

Gluten intolerance is also a condition that causes adverse reactions to gluten. While the intolerance has similarities with celiac disease, there are significant differences between the two conditions.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. Gluten intolerance, on the other hand, does not affect the immune system, and those who suffer from it can manage it with diet. Although both conditions are different in many ways, people often confuse them for each other.

“A gluten intolerance is not an allergy,” according to The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI). A board-certified gastroenterologist can make the diagnosis between an intolerance, celiac disease, and wheat allergy.

Wheat allergies

A wheat allergy is distinct from celiac disease and from gluten intolerance. It typically presents with symptoms that are similar to a typical allergic reaction, such as hives on the skin, swelling in the throat, tongue swelling and protrusion from the mouth, difficulty breathing or swallowing due to hoarseness or tightness in chest muscles.

Wheat allergies are often mistaken for other conditions because they share some symptoms with celiac disease like abdominal pain and diarrhea after ingesting foods containing gluten. Eating just one ounce of bread or pasta made with wheat can trigger an allergy, as can touching a non-food item that has wheat in it.

The ACAAI states that wheat allergies are most common in children, and that “65 percent of children with a wheat allergy will outgrow it by the time they are 12.” They also state that managing and treating a wheat allergy can be done by avoiding products made with wheat, using antihistamines, or using a prescribed epinephrine.

Considering a dietary change? Check with your doctor.

It can be hard at times to differentiate between a wheat allergy, gluten intolerance and celiac disease. A board-certified gastroenterologist with years of experience in the field can diagnose these conditions and help you lead a healthier life.