Woman looking for gluten-free food

With more and more gluten-free products popping up on the market, it's time to find out what makes something gluten-free, plus the difference between a gluten intolerance and celiac disease.

Trend or legitimate health concern?

The terms celiac disease, wheat allergy and gluten intolerant are often thrown around these days and even used interchangeably by some. Although all three are inflamed by gluten and eased by a gluten-free diet, they mean very different things for your body.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. This means that most breads and pastas have gluten. Fortunately there are an increasing number of gluten-free substitutes available on the market today using alternate flours and grains (like rice noodles and chickpea flour). Still, those who must avoid gluten have to be careful even with gluten-free products like soy sauce and ensure that it was not processed along with wheat.

Celiac disease

Celiac is a genetic autoimmune disease, which means that it is inherited and causes the immune system to attack healthy tissue. Caused by ingesting gluten, the only remedy for treating celiac disease is abiding by a strict gluten-free diet. Those with celiac disease experience various forms of stomach ailments and discomfort. If undiagnosed, celiac disease could cause serious harm to your body (in particular your small intestine) and immune system.

Wheat allergy

A wheat allergy manifests similarly to any other allergy and can result in anything from a rash to diarrhea. It is a fairly common allergy and can be confirmed with an allergy test. Like any allergy, avoiding the food you are allergic to, in this case wheat, stops outbreaks.

Gluten intolerance

Also called gluten sensitivity, gluten intolerance is the newest diagnosis of the group. Some people exhibit the symptoms of celiac disease or a wheat allergy but do not test positive for either. People who are gluten intolerant can eat gluten without doing long-term harm to their body. They may just be uncomfortable after doing so.

The gluten-free trend

With the rising awareness of celiac, wheat allergies and gluten intolerance, many people without these diagnoses have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon with the assumption that such a diet must be good for you. But a lot of current research suggests that unless there is a medical necessity, a gluten-free diet may do more harm than good. Although stars like Oprah and Gwyneth Paltrow have gone on gluten-free "cleanses," many gluten-free products are actually higher in calories and carbohydrates than their traditional gluten counterparts.

What to do?

If you are having persistent gastrointestinal discomfort, see a doctor, especially if anyone in your family has been diagnosed with celiac disease. They can test for that as well as a wheat allergy and discuss the best diet options for you. If you are not experiencing these symptoms and are just looking to lose some weight, you may want to try another diet.

More on celiac disease and gluten intolerance

Celiac disease: What you need to know
Celiac disease and gluten intolerance: Diagnosis and treatment
When gluten is hazardous to your health


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Comments on "Gluten intolerance versus celiac disease, and the trend of eating less wheat"

Kayla September 11, 2012 | 8:27 AM

Rivkah Roth is right--it's so annoying when people say oh, I just have gluten intolerance, not celiac, so I don't have to be as careful. People with gluten intolerance can do more damage to their bodies than people with celiac, and yes that damage can be longterm. And way to gloss over the effects of celiac as simply digestive discomfort. There are over 200 symptoms, and you don't have to have any of them to have celiac disease. Do your research before you act like an expert.

Paul April 02, 2012 | 12:57 PM

I see a lot of articles that refer to "warnings" about gluten free diets. It seems to me that people who go gluten free are no more in need of a warning than people who go vegetarian need to be "warned" about not getting enough protein. Whatever diet you choose you should pursue it responsibly.

Rivkah Roth February 28, 2012 | 6:44 PM

I commend you for stressing that glutenfree processed foods may still be too high in calories and carbohydrates - thus not necessarily "healthy." However, a correction is needed re your statement, "People who are gluten intolerant can eat gluten without doing long-term harm to their body. They may just be uncomfortable after doing so." -- So-called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (you call it gluten intolerance) still is a genetic predisposition and requires a 100% glutenfree approach. The main difference to the classical understanding of celiac disease (CD) is that immune system issues are more dominant than the small intestine manifestations. Research has identified lupus, psoriasis, RA, thyroid disease, and many other conditions to be connected with the celiac/gluten related HLA-DQ2/DQ8 genes. Think of the distinction this way: Kleenex (celiac diisease - shows mostly in small intestines) is only one small section of all tissue brands (gluten intolerance or sensitivity - shows up anywhere).

Michelle @ spinningspoons.com February 28, 2012 | 5:50 PM

"Those with celiac disease experience various forms of stomach ailments and discomfort." It's a heck of a lot worse than that. And just switching wheat-based baked goods like bread with a gluten free version doesn't do anything - it's effectively the same health-wise. The "healthy" part comes from the elimination/reduction of grains.

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