Gluten Intolerance is a term used more and more these days. But what actually is gluten intolerance? We’ve enlisted the help of nutritionist Lucy-Ann to help uncover the answers to the many questions surrounding this topic.
There has been a surge of interest in “gluten-free” eating in recent years, partly fuelled by celebrities and sports stars adopting this way of eating, but also due to the many anecdotal reports of better health and digestion, and even gluten-free diets “curing” long-term health conditions. Before we look further into the subject of a gluten-free lifestyle, we need to answer a few basic questions.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a family of proteins found in grains such as wheat (including durum wheat pasta, cous cous and bulgar wheat), spelt, kamut, rye, barley and even oats. Food manufactures also add gluten to a variety of foodstuffs to add elasticity, volume and “rise” or expansion. Gluten gives a chewy texture to some foods, and therefore a better “mouth feel”.
What is gluten intolerance?
Before we answer that, it’s important to understand the difference between the terms “food allergy” and “food intolerance” … and therefore the difference between gluten allergy and intolerance. Many people experience unpleasant reactions to foods they eat, and often suspect they have a “food allergy”. However, only 2–5% of adults and 2–8% of children are truly “allergic” to certain foods. The remainder of people may be experiencing food intolerance, or food sensitivity, rather than a true food allergy.
A food allergy occurs when an individual ingests a food (usually containing a protein) that the body sees as a “foreign” or threatening substance - known as an ANTIGEN or ALLERGEN.
A food “intolerant” reaction also occurs when the body “reacts” to the ingestion of a food.
What can cause food intolerances?
Food intolerances are often caused by stress. Food-intolerant people often have low levels of secretory IgA, a class of protective antibodies found in the gut. IgA antibodies protect the body against the entry of foreign substances. Stress leads to a decrease in secretory IgA… a bit of vicious cycle really, but it certainly explains the relationship between stress and food intolerance!
Alternatively, underlying digestive problems can be the issue. For example, low stomach acidity, gut bacterial overgrowth, a “leaky” or damaged gut lining, yeast infection or poor digestive enzyme production are also common “causes” of food intolerance and must be addressed before avoiding foods unnecessarily.
How to identify gluten intolerance
Diagnosing a food or gluten intolerance rather than an allergy (via IgE antibody blood testing) is not easy, simply because reactions to foods can occur from anywhere between 12-36 hours after eating… coupled with the fact that an individual may be reacting to more than one food!
Exclusion/reintroduction diets are the “gold standard” of tests and the most useful when done properly. They do need to be adhered to for at least 2-4 weeks initially, and are always best done under the guidance of a registered nutritionist or dietician with experience in food allergy and intolerance.
Various blood tests are now available (most useful are IgG antibody tests – available now via pin-prick blood sample) which may prove useful in many cases – but only when there are noticeable symptoms.
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