Navigating the world with a gluten allergy can be daunting at times. About one in 141 Americans, or about 1 percent of the population, suffers from celiac disease. Understanding the differences between wheat free and gluten free can save a lot of hassle and discomfort if you are living with a gluten allergy.
Gluten is a protein found in many of the cereal grains including wheat, rye, barley, triticale and teff. It is found in traditional baked goods like bread, crackers and pasta but also shows up in things like imitation crab meat, pharmaceuticals, vitamins, lipstick and candy. Gluten is found in ancient forms of wheat such as spelt, kamut and enkhorn that are used in products often labeled “wheat free.” While people with a minor wheat sensitivity might not react to these low-gluten grains, anyone suffering from a true gluten allergy should avoid them.
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A gluten allergy is characterized by an immune-mediated response to ingesting the gluten protein, the most severe form of which is the autoimmune condition called celiac disease. Not everyone with a gluten allergy will develop celiac disease; however, all people with celiac disease have an underlying gluten allergy.
Symptoms that can indicate a gluten allergy include chronic digestive distress such as diarrhea, flatulence, nausea, bloating after meals containing gluten and conditions like irritable bowel syndrome. Other symptoms that can point to a gluten allergy are skin disorders including eczema and psoriasis, headaches, anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue and impaired immune function.
Allergy testing done by a doctor can determine whether a person has antibodies to gluten, although tests are not 100 percent accurate. The best way to determine if you have a gluten allergy is to remove all gluten for at least four weeks and then reintroduce it. If you have an allergy, your body will have a strong immune reaction, which can include acute inflammation and a recurrence of any of the previously mentioned symptoms.
What to Avoid
For people with a serious gluten allergy, it is not enough to simply remove wheat from the diet. All grains containing gluten -- along with processed foods that contain gluten -- must be eliminated to bring the body back into balance. When eating out, make it clear that you have a gluten allergy and ask for gluten-free, not simply wheat-free, options. Foods to watch out for include gravies, soy sauce, processed lunch meats, vegan meat replacement products, seasoned snack foods and soup bases.
The great news for people suffering from a gluten allergy is that public awareness of gluten sensitivity has risen dramatically, and it is now easier to find foods that are truly gluten free. Support systems also exist for people living with a gluten allergy such as the Celiac Disease Foundation and the Gluten Intolerance Group. Eating healthy, gluten-free foods allows your body to heal from chronic inflammation, which can dramatically increase your quality of life and physical vitality.
Amy Myszko is a certified clinical herbalist and nutritional consultant who has been helping people find greater health and balance through diet, lifestyle and natural remedies since 2006. She received her certification from the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism in Boulder, Colo. Myszko also holds a BA in literature from the University of Colorado.