I don’t have celiac disease but I do have diagnosed gluten intolerance. My journey to gluten free is a bit unique because as a registered dietitian, I used to not believe in gluten intolerance. I thought it was purely a trend… until I started getting symptoms. Prior to my diagnosis, I met with a lot of doctors of varying specialties and each time I would say: “I never believed in gluten intolerance but I think I’ve become gluten intolerant… is that possible?” Well, considering that gluten makes me uncomfortable, gassy and all-too friendly with many washrooms… the answer is yes.
A few years ago, I spent two years traveling around the world. It was absolutely amazing, but I also got pretty sick quite a few times. I ended up being diagnosed with a few parasites (yes, plural) but not before they had been misdiagnosed as food poisoning on multiple occasions. If you mix in a few parasites with a few ineffective doses of antibiotics… sometimes the damage is lasting. I eventually noticed that eating gluten-containing foods made my intestinal issues even worse – something that is not fun to discover in a country with squat toilets.
When I came home from traveling, I spent several months getting properly diagnosed. It turns out I have post-infectious IBS that is exacerbated by gluten. In short: I’m gluten intolerant and no one knows if it is permanent or temporary.
Would I travel again? HELL YES. I wouldn’t even question it before getting on a plane and doing it all over again. I’ve just had to modify my diet, but it was so totally worth it.
As a Registered Dietitian, I want to explain a little bit more about gluten. I’ll keep it pretty straightforward because there are so many mixed messages out there.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in certain grain products like wheat (white and brown), rye, barley, couscous, bulgar, semolina, triticale and oats* (oats are a grey zone).
Gluten is thankfully NOT found in grain products like corn, rice, soya, potato, quinoa, tapioca, arrowroot and buckwheat* (despite the unfortunate name).
Gluten is also not found in natural products like fruits, vegetables, milk products and animal products.
The problem is that most processed foods do contain gluten, whether it is a pastry made of wheat flour or additives in deli meats, soy sauce, flavoured candies, etc (the list goes on).
What is celiac disease?
When you have celiac disease, your body has an autoimmune reaction to gluten. This means that the immune system of someone with celiac disease would react negatively to the gluten, causing damage to the intestines. You need to cut out all sources of gluten, including cross contamination (different plates, toasters, peanut butter jars, etc). Celiac disease can be highly symptomatic or totally asymptomatic, but you are guaranteed to end up with internal issues if you continue to eat gluten. There are medical tests that can determine if you have celiac disease or not that include blood tests and biopsies.
What is gluten intolerance?
Gluten intolerance is NOT an autoimmune disease. Your body cannot handle varying amounts of gluten, but there is no need to worry about cross-contamination. Often symptoms are purely gastrointestinal (diarrhea, gas, bloating, nausea, ulcers, constipation). There can also be other symptoms like foggy mind, numbness, joint pains, etc. There is no actual test to prove you are gluten intolerant. It is determined by ruling out other diagnoses and having symptoms resolved or improved after following an ‘elimination diet’. This is often referred to as non-celiac gluten sensitivity meaning that someone develops symptoms when they consume gluten but they do not have celiac disease.
Is a gluten-free diet beneficial if I don’t have any issues?
There is no denying that there has been a gluten-free trend over the past few years. I am a firm believer that if something works for you, then it works for you. However, there is no evidence that gluten-free food is beneficial for someone that doesn’t have any symptoms. In fact, following a gluten-free diet can have other nutritional concerns. Often gluten-free grains are more energy dense (higher calories) and are low in B vitamins and low in fiber. Gluten-free products are also more expensive, which might not always be feasible.
If I have symptoms should I just cut out gluten?
No, you need to get tested for celiac disease first. The testing process for celiac disease can only be done if you are eating gluten, as the tests are based on damage to your body. If you cut out gluten then your tests could be falsely negative. If you have undiagnosed celiac disease, you can cause harm to your body by not being as strict as needed with cross-contamination or ‘cheating’ with gluten containing foods.
Is ‘Wheat Free’ and ‘Gluten Free’ the same thing?
Wheat allergies exist and they are different than celiac disease. If you’re basing your food choices on the labels, make sure they say ‘wheat free’ for wheat allergies and ‘gluten free’ for celiac disease. Not all foods that contain gluten also contain wheat and vice-versa.
Having to be gluten free is actually much simpler than it seems. Most natural foods are gluten free, so you just need to find alternatives for your grain products and any junk food you might want to enjoy in moderation. There are some great gluten-free alternatives for things like pasta and bread, and you can always eat gluten-free grains like rice and quinoa. I would also suggest taking a multivitamin that contains B vitamins and focusing on increasing fiber in your diet where possible. There are some coupons online to help with the cost while you’re trying out what works for you.
For me, eating gluten free is about respecting what my body needs right now as it is healing. Hopefully my body will heal but until then I’m making sure I care for it the best way that works for me. I hope you do the same!
Check out some really great resources:
Let me know if you have any questions – I am more than happy to help! (I am a Registered Dietitian in the province of Quebec).