These days we hear a lot about wheat allergy. Maybe someone you know has even “given up” wheat for the perceived health benefits that such abstinence will bestow.

For a person who has no difficulty digesting any of the wheat proteins and whose body does not produce an immune reaction in the presence of these proteins, the question of whether or not refraining from eating wheat and other gluten-containing foods actually improves health and promotes increased wellbeing is one only the individual can answer.

What is more certain, however, is the improvement that can be gained by eliminating wheat and/or gluten from the diet of those people who suffer a medically identifiable wheat or gluten-related condition.

Wheat and Gluten

Gluten is a protein found in wheat and it is often the source of wheat-related health problems. However, gluten is not the only component of wheat that can cause problems. The other allergy producing wheat proteins are albumin, globulin and gliadin.

Clearly, then, it is important to distinguish between wheat-related conditions (which may result from any of the four wheat proteins) and those caused purely by gluten (which is also found in foods like oats and rye).

Broadly, there are three conditions associated with wheat or gluten.

Wheat Allergy

Wheat allergy is a dramatic and severe reaction to one or more of the problematic wheat components. Its onset is likely to be immediate and, in extreme cases, its consequences can be life-threatening.

People with wheat allergy have developed an abnormal immune system reaction to wheat protein. Basically, the body sees one or more of the wheat proteins as a threat and mounts an attack against it using allergy-causing antibodies.

Symptoms of wheat allergy include:

  • Swelling of the throat
  • Itching of the mouth or throat
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Cramps
  • Diarrhoea
  • Watering eyes
  • Hives and rashes
  • Difficulty breathing

Wheat allergy becomes life-threatening when it results in the more extreme symptom of anaphylaxis. During anaphylaxis a person may suffer chest pain, become unable to breathe or swallow, exhibit a bluish skin tone, have a weak pulse and experience dizziness and fainting.

Wheat Intolerance

Wheat intolerance is a very different condition to wheat allergy. Rather than experiencing an immune system reaction, sufferers of wheat intolerance have difficulty digesting wheat protein. The effects of wheat intolerance are less dramatic than those of wheat allergy and include:

  • Depression
  • Eczema
  • Aching joints
  • Intestinal problems
  • Bloating
  • Low iron levels

Coeliac Disease

Coeliac disease is, in a sense, a more specific disease as it is caused by only one type of protein – gluten. As already mentioned, gluten is found in wheat, but it also occurs in other foods such as oats, rye and barley.

With coeliac disease, the sufferer experiences an immune reaction that causes damaging inflammation in the small intestine whenever gluten-containing foods are eaten. Villi, small structures in the intestine necessary for the absorption of nutrients, are destroyed during this inflammatory process.

The effects of coeliac disease include:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Deficiency in certain vitamins
  • Bloating and abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Easy bruising
  • Joint pain
  • Low calcium levels
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Muscle spasms
  • Weight loss

Foods to Avoid

If you suffer from a wheat or gluten-related problem, some of the more obvious foods to avoid include:

  • Breads
  • Pasta
  • Cakes and pies
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Wheat flour
  • Oats
  • Rye
  • Alcoholic beverages made with barley
  • Muffins
  • Couscous
  • Crackers and biscuits
  • Soy sauce
  • Cereal-containing meat products like hot dogs and sausages
  • Certain condiments and sauces that are thickened with flour or wheat protein
  • Hydrolysed vegetable protein

Replacement Foods

Although the list of foods to avoid above might seem depressing, there are many alternative foods that can successfully replace the starchy, carbohydrate favourites that form such a large part of the non-sufferer’s diet. In addition, for those who react against only gluten, there are gluten-free variations of some of the standard starchy foods – gluten-free flour and desserts, for instance.

Good non-wheat, non-gluten replacement foods include:

  • Rice
  • Corn
  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Amaranth
  • Quinoa
  • Arrowroot
  • Potatoes and potato flour
  • Various beans

General Shopping

To find foods that are wheat or gluten-free check out the health food shelves in your local supermarket. Some supermarkets now even have specific display areas for gluten and wheat-free foods.

When choosing foods from other sections of the supermarket, read the list of ingredients carefully. Many wheat/gluten-containing foods are obvious, but others are less so. Sauces, stocks, battered foods, and even icing sugar can all contain wheat, wheat by-products or gluten.

The Coeliac Society in your area may be able to provide a list of shops that specialise in wheat and gluten-free foods.

Dining Out

Dining out can present a problem for coeliac sufferers and those with wheat allergy or intolerance. Here are some steps you can take to mitigate the difficulty:

  • Phone the potential restaurant and check that they offer (or will specially prepare)  wheat/gluten-free dishes.
  • Check that the gluten free foods they might already offer are not prepared in the presence of wheat or other gluten-containing foods. Cross contamination by just a few breadcrumbs may be all it takes to send a person with severe wheat allergy to the emergency ward.
  • Be careful about sauces etc. that the restaurant uses – they could contain wheat.
  • Check with your local Coeliac Society for a list of restaurants that cater for wheat and gluten sensitive people.

The Way Ahead

As the most effective treatment for wheat allergy, intolerance and coeliac disease is to completely eliminate the offending proteins, careful dietary attention is needed if sufferers are to escape unpleasant and possibly life-threatening symptoms.

By removing wheat/gluten containing foods from your shopping list, investigating restaurants beforehand, choosing non-wheat and gluten-free replacement foods and by always checking ingredient lists the triggering effects of wheat proteins can be largely avoided.

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