If you suspect wheat as a possible cause of your symptoms should you exclude it? What if others say they feel better on a gluten-free diet, or an alternative practitioner suggests it? First, consider what symptoms you have. If you have gut discomfort or IBS, excluding gluten may help. But first have your symptoms checked by a doctor. Even if you went on a gluten-free diet and it helped a bit, that would be no use if, underneath that, you had some serious problem growing.
Many people use the words “gluten” and “wheat” interchangeably, however they do not mean the same thing. Gluten is the main protein found in wheat and rye, and must be strictly avoided by those who have been diagnosed with coeliac disease. As well as protein, wheat contains useful-for-energy starch, and it can contain fibre in wholegrain or high-fibre breads and wheat products.
For people who experience gut discomfort after eating wheat, but do not have coeliac disease, the starch component of wheat, rather than the protein component (gluten), might be the problem. When thinking about the starch it is worth thinking about how well-cooked the food is. Many people feel uncomfortable after doughy, under-cooked bread. They do not have this problem if they eat well cooked, crusty or even toasted bread, or crisp dry crackers. Bread becomes stale as water evaporates from the surface. If you heat your oven and pat your bread with water and bake it for 10 minutes until crusty on the outside, and with the hot soft crumb inside, it is really enjoyable, and may be more comfortable for your gut.
If one of your symptoms is bloating, with wind, to a distressing degree for you, then you may be intolerant to another part of wheat: a not-absorbed carbohydrate called a fructooligosaccharide, or “fructan”. It is one of the many prebiotics avoided in the low FODMAPs diet, which is used to reduce the bloating and wind symptoms of IBS. If you need to avoid fructans, rather than gluten, there are many breads that you can still use. Spelt flour is low in fructans, and the fructan in wheat bread is changed in the making of a fully sourdough bread with no yeast. Helga’s Lower Carb 5 Seed bread and the Helga’s Lower Carb Wholemeal & Seeds bread are also low in fructans. There are no fructans in most gluten-free breads. However, if your IBS involves more than bloating, stretching and wind, then read on for other ideas.
If you wonder if you have coeliac disease, do discuss your symptoms with your doctor. Remember you need to keep three serves of wheat-containing foods in your diet each day, for three weeks, before any test, or it will not be useful. If you are a diagnosed coeliac you are among those you must be very careful about your gluten-free diet. The ideas on this page are not for you. If your coeliac test comes back negative and you still feel better excluding all wheat you may be described as having a non-coeliac gluten intolerance. On the other hand if you have a negative result to an allergy test for wheat you could be considered to have a non-allergic or non IgE-mediated wheat allergy. Just because you are not a coeliac, or you don’t have a wheat allergy, does not mean you are not wheat sensitive. Excluding wheat for four weeks and reintroducing increasing amounts of plain dry biscuits or plain pasta, for up to seven days, with symptoms returning, will clarify if you are wheat sensitive.
If you have lethargy, foggy thinking, loose bowel motions, or any other food sensitivity symptoms, is gluten the first food to exclude? Where loose bowels are concerned, wholegrains make a difference. They stimulate the gut movement which is good for those with dry motions or even constipation, remembering that if you increase wholegrain you need to increase fluid. Wholegrains and fibre increase the volume in the gut, so their intake must be balanced with increased fluid to keep the gut contents moist, and prevent bowel motions becoming dry. A good idea is to “drink lots of water whenever you eat”, as well as drinking water, away from food, when you are thirsty.
Remember that too much wholegrain fibre is not useful in everybody. In some people the wholegrain stimulates the gut too much and produces loose motions. Fortunately these people do not need to exclude gluten. If this is you then the fibre is the problem. You can still eat white bread, toast or refined dry biscuits and pasta. You still need some fibre so the gut biome [the good bacteria] stays healthy. You need to have some fruit or vegetable at every meal to help provide a soft bulky bowel motion. Legumes such as those convenient canned beans, or pea soup, also help with bulk and softness, but legumes can be another culprit where bloating and wind are causing you discomfort.
Decreasing gluten is unlikely to be enough if you have frequent or loose bowel motions, or other gut symptoms such as cramping pain, gut urgency or discomfort while passing your bowel motion. All those with IBS have their own cluster of symptoms. Having a diet with any herbs, spice, acidic fruit, or the usual intake of additives, can increase looseness and frequency, faster than having gluten. When I was doing clinical research into diet and ADHD I found that having families go on an additive-free low chemical diet often meant that children, who had been on a wheat-free diet, could enjoy some normal bread or pasta that they could not until then. You can see why I call the diet investigation “diet detective work”!
For further interesting ideas see my article What diet should you begin with? http://www.foodintolerancepro.com/elimination-diet-with/ and The delightful wickedness of having wheat on a wheat-free diet http://foodintolerancepro.com/category/food-intolerance/the-delightful-wickedness-of-bread/ so you make sure you do not have to exclude such yummy foods if you do not need to.