Medically reviewed by Asma Khapra, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 8, 2023
Gluten intolerance (or gluten sensitivity) is an intolerance to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. People with gluten intolerance are unable to consume bread, pasta, or baked goods without experiencing digestive issues. Gluten intolerance is not to be confused with celiac disease – a similar but much more serious issue: while those with a sensitivity to gluten simply experience short-term digestive problems, those with celiac disease suffer intestinal damage and other serious side effects after eating gluten. It’s not known exactly how many Americans suffer from gluten intolerance, but 3 million live with celiac disease.
What are the symptoms of gluten intolerance?
Symptoms of gluten sensitivity are similar to those of celiac disease but usually less severe:
- Stomach pain
- Weight loss
Do I have gluten intolerance or celiac disease?
Since the two conditions share symptoms, it can be difficult to know if you have a gluten sensitivity or the more serious celiac disease. While there is no test to diagnose gluten intolerance, celiac disease is identified by getting a blood test as well as a small intestine biopsy. Furthermore, people with celiac disease usually have additional symptoms that go beyond digestive issues, such as:
- Extreme fatigue
- An itchy skin rash
- Iron-deficient anemia
- Cognitive impairment or numbness in the hands and feet
- Mouth ulcers
- Joint pain
If you have any of the above symptoms in addition to the symptoms of gluten intolerance, contact your doctor to arrange a test for celiac disease.
Treating gluten intolerance
The only way to relieve symptoms of gluten intolerance is by entirely cutting out gluten from your diet. Yes, that means no bread, pasta, or baked goods. But that’s not all–many processed food products contain added gluten as well. You’d never think that hot dogs, lunch meats, or instant soups could trigger symptoms of your gluten allergy, but unfortunately, a large amount of common foods are made with gluten as a thickening agent.
Here are some foods to avoid if you have a gluten intolerance. Note: Unless the packaging has a “gluten-free” label, assume that the product contains gluten.
- Boxed cereals
- Instant or canned soups
- Bottled sauces
- Malt products
- Instant ramen noodles
- Salad dressings
- Any foods made with wheat (pastas, breads, cakes, etc.)
- Hot dogs and packaged lunch meats
- French fries
- Seasoning mixes
- Snack foods
Keep in mind that everyone is different. Some people with a gluten intolerance can still eat small amounts of gluten without experiencing digestive problems, while others have a lower tolerance. Those with celiac disease, however, cannot tolerate any gluten at all, as their small intestine will be damaged even from trace amounts.
If you think you might have an intolerance to gluten, start by adopting a strictly gluten-free diet to see if your symptoms subside. If your symptoms better resemble those of celiac disease, talk to your doctor to set up a blood test or other testing for celiac disease.
Written by Natan Rosenfeld