Should You Be Wary of Wheat? Alison Runham

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If you suffer from bloating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, stomach cramps or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), maybe you should be. However, always see your GP (rather than self-diagnosing) if these symptoms are severe and persistent, especially if you have blood in your stools, vomiting, excessive bloating or very painful stomach cramps – it may indicate more serious medical conditions.

Wheat allergy, wheat sensitivity/intolerance and Coeliac disease are often confused, so let’s get them straight.

Wheat Allergy
If you are truly wheat allergic, eating wheat will rapidly provoke allergy symptoms such as itching, rashes, sneezing and wheezing. You’ll need to avoid wheat in any form and see your GP.

Coeliac Disease
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition that affects around 1% of people in the UK and often goes undiagnosed. In Coeliac sufferers, the intestinal lining becomes damaged because it can’t absorb gluten, a protein found in foods including wheat, barley and rye. Tiredness, hair loss, mouth ulcers, anaemia and unexpected weight loss, alongside gastrointestinal symptoms, can indicate Coeliac disease. Diagnosis is by a blood test and biopsy. Both tests are only accurate if you’re still eating gluten, so you’ll need to continue eating gluten until the tests are complete. If Coeliac disease is diagnosed, you must avoid gluten permanently.

Wheat Intolerance/Sensitivity
Wheat intolerance or sensitivity is much more common than wheat allergy. Symptoms can develop some hours after eating wheat, which can make the condition hard to pinpoint, and it’s not something your GP can test for.

Try eliminating wheat for four weeks to see if your symptoms improve (ensuring you replace it with healthy alternatives like rice, corn, buckwheat pasta and quinoa). Remember that wheat is in most breads, cakes, pastas, pastries, cereals, couscous, biscuits, beer, soy sauce and hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP), and is a hidden ingredient in many other products. Keep a food diary in case another food type, such as dairy, is the culprit – but don’t eliminate whole food groups long-term without consulting your GP.

Reintroduce wheat slowly (preferably starting with 100% wheat products). If your symptoms reappear, it’s a good indication that you have wheat sensitivity; trial and error will tell you whether you’re sensitive to all wheat products or just some. This can depend on the process the wheat has undergone; some people can tolerate toast and pasta better than bread, because the heating process makes the wheat more digestible. Supermarket bread may be less digestible than traditional bakery bread, as supermarkets use an accelerated bread-making process.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
If your symptoms don’t seem specifically tied to wheat, you may have IBS. While the causes are not entirely clear, stress, illness, high-fat or high-fibre foods seem to precipitate attacks, making bowel function erratic and causing gastrointestinal symptoms. Probiotic supplements or foods can help, as can medication prescribed by your GP.

Tackling Wheat Sensitivity and IBS: The FODMAP diet
Designed originally for people with (IBS), the wheat-free low-FODMAP diet eliminates Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols – types of carbohydrates that aren’t easily digested and may cause bacterial growth, leading to diarrhoea and bloating. The FODMAP diet should be followed under a dietician’s guidance to ensure you stay healthy and follow it correctly, as it’s quite complex. Your GP can give you a referral.

Information and Support:
Coeliac UK:
Helpline 0333 332 2033 coeliac.org.uk
The IBS Network: 0114 272 32 53 theibsnetwork.org
Allergy UK (also has information on intolerances): 01322 619898. allergyuk.org

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