Celiac disease, gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergies tend to be viewed as one issue of increased prominence and awareness, but in reality, they are not the same.
This misconception is understandable for the average person who can consume gluten without issue, but for those who struggle to avoid it and carefully plan out their meals, bypassing gluten is not a fad diet or trend. The misunderstanding can be frustrating and could lead to health-damaging mistakes.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which gluten, a protein found in wheat, causes damage to the inner surface of the small intestine and prevents nutrients from being absorbed, which can lead to vitamin deficiencies. There is no known cure for celiac disease, but treatment is provided through nutritional changes to the diet and avoiding gluten intake. Patients can be tested for celiac disease. While there is no cure, celiac disease can be managed with diet and proper medical care.
Gluten intolerance or sensitivity is also known as “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.” Often confused with celiac disease, gluten intolerance is not an autoimmune disease. It can produce the same symptoms as celiac disease when gluten is consumed, but damage to the inner surface of the small intestine will not occur. There is no diagnostic test for gluten intolerance. Instead, other conditions are ruled out. A gastroenterologist will need to conclude that you do not have celiac disease or a wheat allergy first.
Wheat allergy: Wheat is a fairly common food allergy and is diagnosed as frequently as an allergy to milk, eggs, fish, soy, or the oft-discussed peanuts. An allergic reaction to a wheat product is not the same as celiac disease or an issue digesting gluten. The reason why a wheat allergy may be confused with either condition is because gluten is found in wheat products like bread, cereal, and pasta, all foods that are avoided by those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
As noted, it’s understandable for someone to confuse one gluten issue with another. For those who live with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or a food allergy, it can be tough to communicate why you need to avoid certain foods and how you’ll feel if you accidentally ingest something you try to avoid. Fortunately, education and awareness about issues with digesting gluten has increased in recent years. Many grocery stores have dedicated an aisle or a section to gluten-free food products and many restaurants will note meals where gluten is either present or can be removed from the dish.