Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and kamut. There is a tremendous difference between Celiac disease, gluten (or wheat) sensitivity, and gluten intolerance, and I'm guessing you are confused too! Allow me to shine some light.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition where the body actually attacks itself in response to eating gluten-containing foods. As a result, there is destruction of intestinal cells and poor absorption of nutrients, particularly fat, calcium, iron, folate, vitamin D and vitamin B12. Symptoms can vary widely, but it is generally accepted that many people are actually undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions. A good clue is the genetic link to the disease, so watch for family trends of autoimmune conditions.
Diagnosis: Intestinal biopsy (gold standard), DNA test via blood or stool, Blood tests
Gluten sensitivity also involves an immune response to gluten, however, there seems to be no destruction of the intestinal villi. Symptoms can be similar to Celiac disease, but could take a day or two to show up which can make it difficult to diagnose. Untreated, the normally tight junctions of intestinal cells can become leaky and affect nutrient absorption as well. It could be the cause of unexplained iron deficiency or mood imbalance.
Diagnosis: IgG Allergy test, Elimination diet
Gluten intolerance has more to do with the body being unable to metabolize gluten. Part of the reason for this inability to breakdown gluten has to do with food manufacturing. Foods today are not the same as they were 100 years ago. Now the gluten content of breads can be as much as 50% of the final product, where in the past it was closer to 1%. The yeast used in bread is commercial quality, which fails to start the breakdown of gluten as it would have using traditional techniques.
Wheat and flour are used ubiquitously in processed foods as a thickener and filler, in addition to our diets which are already dependent upon bread. Also, the chemicals used to bleach and preserve our food interfere with our immune system, making it more reactive.
This combination of higher gluten content, constant exposure to gluten in our diet, and a trigger happy immune system make a recipe for disaster that can cause or aggravate many health conditions.
Diagnosis: Elimination diet
You may have heard the recent information debunking gluten sensitivity, but let me put it to you this way:
Do you feel better eating a gluten-free diet?
- less bloating, gas, abdominal pain
- increased energy
- clearer skin
- reduced pain
- better digestion
- balanced mood
- hormone regulation
- healthy body weight
- improved thinking and concentration
If you don't have any of these symptoms, or haven't noticed a change without gluten in your diet then we need to figure out what else is going on.
How to Eat Gluten-free
The wide availability of gluten-free products has made the transition to gluten-free eating much simpler. You can essentially keep eating the exact same diet with some substitutions and careful label-reading. While this is great on occasion, or during the transition phase, a diet high in processed foods is still not the best choice. In fact, many of the gluten-free crackers, breads, cereals and sweets are high in sugar, fairly undigestible and lacking in nutrients. This way of eating will not help to repair your damaged gut or replenish your nutrient deficiencies. The next step is to make plants and whole foods the star of your meals.
GF Pasta ----> Spaghetti squash
GF Tortillas ----> Collard greens
GF Crackers (corn, rice) --> Seed crackers (eg. Mary's), or Raw vegetables
Wheat-free Granola ---> hemp, flax, chia seeds & nuts
Sandwich --> leafy green salad with chicken/eggs/fish