Wheat intolerance: Symptoms, causes and what to do

What is wheat intolerance?

Sufferers find foods such as bread and pasta hard to digest. Wheat intolerance symptoms may include joint pains, headaches and bloating that occurs when undigested wheat produces gases in the intestine and makes the abdomen swell. Allergy UK estimates that up to 45 per cent of people in the UK have food intolerance symptoms, but allergies to wheat are much less common and affect less than 1 per cent of the population.

Allergies can be diagnosed by an NHS skin-prick test while wheat intolerance can be tricky to identify and may resemble other digestive disorders that produce similar symptoms, for instance irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or coeliac disease.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition where gluten – found in wheat, rye, barley – triggers an immune reaction and the lining of the small intestine is damaged. If you think you may have coeliac disease you should ask your doctor to conduct a blood test to search for antibodies to gluten.

The symptoms of food intolerance may only show up many hours after eating the problem food. It’s possible to be intolerant to several different foods and so it can be difficult to identify which foods are causing the problem.

What causes wheat intolerance?

Some experts believe people who are wheat intolerant do not have the enzymes needed to digest wheat. Humans have eaten grains for 10,000 years, which may seem like a long time but really isn’t in evolutionary terms. Before this time people hunted and ate animals and foraged for vegetables, seeds, fruits and nuts.

Lowri Turner, a TV presenter and qualified nutritionist, who writes a column on food problems for Grazia magazine (lowriturner.com), says: “[The symptoms] are quite a moveable feast which is why so many people think it is a load of rubbish. People say that we never had problems with eating wheat in the past. The problem is we are eating wheat several times a day and overloading our system.”

So while most tolerate some wheat, we are now eating too much: if you are having breakfast cereals, sandwiches for lunch and pasta for dinner, you are having wheat at every meal.

How to deal with wheat intolerance

Turner recommends removing all wheat from the diet for at least two weeks: so no bread, pasta, biscuits, cakes, sauces or shop-bought soups, no bulgur wheat or couscous. Instead, she recommends eating quinoa or buckwheat seeds, eggs, low-fat dairy, tofu, oily fish, chicken and a little red meat. Breakfast could be eggs or yoghurt and berries, a salad for lunch and a stir-fry for dinner. She suggests trying to eat one dish containing wheat after the two-week elimination and monitoring how you feel afterwards.

She also asks clients to keep a symptom diary before and after eliminating wheat from their diet. This will really help to motivate you: it’s hard to stay away from your favourite bowl of pasta without being sure that it is at the root of the problem so you will need to record what you’ve eaten and how your body has reacted (unlike with coeliac disease or wheat allergy, there is no NHS test to show you have a wheat intolerance). We may actually crave the foods that are making us ill.

Turner says: “Reintroduce foods one at a time and if you get a reaction – digestive problems, skin break-outs, a headache – then you may be better off avoiding that food. However, certain factors exacerbate intolerance reactions, notably stress. It is quite common to have had no problems with certain foods and then you have a period of chronic stress and start reacting to all sorts of things. This is because stress affects the immune system. So, if you reduce your stress levels, you may find that your intolerances improve. Also, if you start taking probiotics, which direct the immune system towards tolerance, your intolerances could also improve.

“The key is probably to be open-minded and consider wheat alternatives. There are so many, from bread made from buckwheat (a seed that has nothing to do with wheat), cereal made from puffed rice, pasta made from corn. The ‘free from’ movement is now huge. All of us should be trying to eat a variety of foods anyway so, for good health, we should try to vary the grains we eat so it’s not wheat, wheat and more wheat.”

Wheat intolerance products and treatments

Probiotics may improve digestion through supplementing good bacteria in the gut. She advises taking a probiotic capsule rather than eating probiotic yoghurt, as the dose is higher and adds that the best brand is Proven Probiotics (available from Lloyds Pharmacy or provenprobiotics.com). She also recommends taking a fish oil supplement and 5-Hydroxytrytophan (5 HTP). This is prescribed to regulate moods and help treat anxiety. This is important as wheat intolerance has been linked to depression. She also recommends yoga or t’ai chi to reduce stress levels.

Read more about wheat intolerance

Amelia Freer: which foods contain wheat and why you should cut back

Amelia Freer's gluten-free spicy peppers recipe

Too much wheat? Why going wheat-free might make you healthier

Sarah Vine on hosting a gluten-free dinner party

Why go gluten-free?

Why wheat intolerance might make you sneeze

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