Should I Go Gluten-Free? The Truth About GI Allergies and Causes

Medically reviewed by Seunggu Han, MD on April 7, 2017Written by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN, CCRN on April 7, 2017
gluten

While gluten-free everything is a trend that hasn’t yet lost steam, eating gluten-containing foods may not even be why you’re experiencing uncomfortable gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms. Read on to learn the truth about GI allergies, causes, and other conditions.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein that’s naturally found in many carbohydrate-containing foods, such as wheat, barley, and rye. Food manufacturers also add gluten to products such as salad dressing and soy sauce to thicken them. A gluten-free diet excludes the following foods:

  • barley, including malt flavoring and malt vinegar
  • farina
  • kamut
  • rye
  • semolina
  • spelt
  • triticale
  • wheat

Many processed foods also have gluten added to them. A person following a gluten-free diet shouldn’t eat the following foods unless the package specifically says “gluten-free”:

  • beer
  • cakes
  • cereals
  • cookies
  • crackers
  • french fries
  • pastas
  • processed lunch meats
  • salad dressings
  • seasoned rice mixes
  • soups and soup bases
  • vegetables served in sauce

Food manufacturers and restaurants are increasing their gluten-free offerings so that people who must follow a gluten-free diet can have a more varied diet.

What medical conditions can benefit from a gluten-free diet?

Eating a gluten-free diet is the primary treatment for celiac disease. A person with this condition is allergic to gluten, and their body can’t tolerate or break down the gluten protein. The result is inflammation that can lead to stomach upset, weight loss, diarrhea, and nausea when eating gluten. Eating even a small amount of gluten can trigger a reaction in the body that damages the small intestine’s lining.

Celiac disease can be a genetic condition, and those with a parent, child, or sibling with this disease are much more likely to have it. Doctors don’t know exactly what causes celiac disease, but a history of certain gastrointestinal infections or the presence or lack of certain gut bacteria could play a factor.

You can develop celiac disease as an adult or have it as a child. Possible symptoms include:

  • abdominal pain
  • bloating
  • irritability
  • pale stool
  • poor dental health
  • unexplained fatigue
  • vomiting

Adults often experience different symptoms from children. For example, only one-third of all adults with celiac disease experience diarrhea as a symptom, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. So this symptom is more likely to indicate another underlying medical condition.

Some people may not be allergic to gluten, but are still sensitive to its effects. This condition is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity. A person with this condition can get stomach upset when eating foods with gluten, but won’t experience the intestinal damage a person with celiac disease can.

In recent years, people have been eating a gluten-free diet as a means to lose weight. A gluten-free diet isn’t by definition a weight-loss diet. The diet may help people lose weight because it’s usually devoid of processed and higher-fat food options like cookies, cakes, and salad dressings.

What are the drawbacks of a gluten-free diet?

Those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity must eat a gluten-free diet to control their symptoms. However, they also miss out on key nutrients that are often found in foods containing gluten. For example, many whole grain foods are fortified with vitamins, such as iron and B vitamins. People who don’t eat these foods need to find other sources of these nutrients. They may also not get enough fiber in their daily diet.

Doctors will usually recommend those with gluten disorders take a gluten-free multivitamin to make up for missing nutrients. These can include calcium, phosphorus, and zinc.

Additionally, gluten-free products can cost more than their gluten-containing counterparts. If you don’t physically need to avoid gluten for your health, you may be spending extra money unnecessarily to purchase gluten-free products.

What other conditions could be causing my symptoms?

While a gluten-free diet may help some people with a gluten intolerance experience a decrease in their symptoms, it’s important not to self-diagnose your condition. This is because stomach upset and diarrhea could also be the symptoms of other medical conditions that require different treatments entirely. These conditions include:

  • Crohn’s disease or inflammatory bowel disease
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • metastatic carcinoid tumor
  • other types of gastrointestinal cancer

If you’re having uncomfortable abdominal symptoms, talk to your doctor. This helps ensure you’re choosing the best and safest treatments for your overall health.

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