Lose the Gluten
by Phyllis D. Light, RH
October 14, 2004
Are you a glutton for gluten, the
sticky protein found in bagels and many other breads?
Unfortunately, not everyone can enjoy the taste of
fresh-baked bread because it contains this natural substance
that can cause allergic reaction or intolerance in
And while not everyone who suffers from food allergies or
intolerances has a problem with gluten, other foods that can
cause distress include items like watermelon, fish or even
the benign-seeming peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Still, with a little guidance, even if you have an allergy
or two, you can enjoy meals and reduce food-related
difficulties when you make food choices wisely.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, more than one
in 50 adults and one in 12 children in the US suffer food
allergies. But the problem may be even larger. Researchers
believe even more of us have food allergies and don't know
it: many food allergies and intolerances may be mistaken for
irritable bowel syndrome or conditions like chronic fatigue
The involvement of the immune system in an allergy
represents the dividing line between intolerance and
allergy. A food allergy strikes when the immune system
attacks food ingredients as though they were threatening
substances. Usually, proteins trigger these physiological
alarms. The most common food allergens include wheat, soy,
peanuts, shellfish, eggs, fish, tree nuts, milk and
watermelon. Fortunately, many children who suffer allergies
outgrow them as their bodies mature.
Signs of a food allergy may include a rash, hives, nausea,
stomach pain, diarrhea, itchy skin, shortness of breath,
chest pain, swelling of the airways and a condition called
anaphylactic shock, a serious occurrence that can cut off
breathing and requires immediate medical help.
If you believe you have a food allergy, see your health
practitioner. If you have reasons to suspect an allergy to a
particular food, avoid it altogether.
Intolerance Versus Allergy
Food intolerances are more common than allergies. They
happen when food irritates the digestive system or offers
substances that the digestive tract cannot break down. A
food intolerance, however, does not provoke the immune
system into an attack. The most common foods that cause
intolerance are wheat, rye and barley; they all contain
Figuring out an intolerance generally requires adding and
eliminating foods to gauge your response. Signs can include
nausea, stomach pain, gas, cramps, bloating, vomiting,
heartburn, diarrhea, headaches and irritability or
nervousness. If you suspect you have a food intolerance,
keep a food diary-recording what you eat and how you feel
In addition, an elimination diet, wherein you avoid certain
foods and track your responses, can help determine food
intolerances. After you have dropped certain foods from your
diet, reintroduce them, one at a time, until you eat a food
that causes a return of your problems. These foods should
then be permanently avoided.
Celiac sprue is a particularly severe inflammatory response
to wheat or other grains containing gluten. According to the
National Science Foundation, one in every 200 Americans
suffers from this often misdiagnosed condition. That's more
than a million of us!
If left untreated, celiac sprue can cause anemia, contribute
to osteoporosis by limiting calcium absorption and increase
the risk for intestinal cancer. Signs include headaches,
weight loss, nutritional deficiencies, fatigue and
neurological symptoms. The only treatment is to avoid all
grains that contain gluten.
According to researchers in England, celiac sprue is often
mistaken for chronic fatigue syndrome, type 1 diabetes or
irritable bowel syndrome and can result in infertility (Med
J Austral 2004 May 17; 180(10):524-6). Because sprue can
confuse health practitioners, many people spend years trying
to find an answer to their discomforts before finding that a
gluten-free diet relieves their pain.
According to the Celiac Sprue Association, if you have
gluten intolerance you should avoid durum wheat, semolina
wheat, rye, kamut, spelt, barley, triticale and often oats.
Some people find they can tolerate spelt, a distant cousin
to wheat that's high in fiber and contains more protein
(talk to your practitioner). Oats are generally
well-tolerated by most people with gluten intolerance, but
because oats are often processed on the same machinery as
wheat, they may have traces of gluten. If you are gluten
intolerant, you can still eat rice, corn, soy, potatoes,
beans, sorghum, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, arrowroot and
Other food ingredients can trouble digestion. They include:
• Lactose: Up to 20% of Americans are lactose intolerant (Har
Health Lett 2003 Dec; 29:6-7), reacting badly to milk
products because they lack the enzyme necessary for
digesting lactose (milk sugar). For these people, milk, ice
cream and cheese cause gas, bloating, abdominal pain and
• MSG (monosodium glutamate): A flavor enhancer, MSG can
cause allergic responses in susceptible individuals.
• Sulfites: Food preservatives-often found in baked goods,
wines, snack foods and condiments-have been found to cause
hives, nausea, shortness of breath, diarrhea and, in some
cases, anaphylactic shock.
• Food colorings: These items may cause allergic-type
responses in some people.
If you have what seem to be allergies and intolerances,
fermented foods that contain beneficial bacteria (probiotics)
can aid the functioning of your digestive tract. Yogurt,
kefir, buttermilk and sauerkraut supply active bacterial
cultures and are generally easy to tolerate because they are
predigested. According to researchers at Tufts University,
yogurt can improve your digestive health and soothe
difficulties linked to allergies and intolerances (AJCN 2004
In addition, yogurt and other probiotic foods have been
found to reduce the recurrence of irritable bowel flare-ups
and may help reduce the risk of colon cancer. Yogurt
improves gut microflora, increases bowel transit time and
enhances immune response. Probiotics are also available as
If you have problems with certain foods or additives,
becoming an amateur food detective can make meals more
Before eating a packaged food, always read the label; if you
are unsure of the ingredients, contact the food
manufacturer. But, in any uncertain situation, if you are in
doubt of a food's ingredients, do without. Better to avoid
food problems than realize too late that you've eaten a food
that has upset your digestion.
Some people find their food intolerance comes and goes,
often depending upon the amount eaten and how often a food
is consumed. For example, some people with lactose
intolerance find they can have a little milk in their coffee
or on their breakfast cereal one day a week, but have
problems if they drink milk on two consecutive days.
While deciphering which foods in your diet cause you
problems can be time consuming, the reward for eliminating
these nutrients, better digestion, is great. Don't give up!
Persevere and, eventually your digestion will thank you.