How to recognize the signs and symptoms of gluten intolerance and get a proper diagnosis

How to recognize the signs and symptoms of gluten intolerance and get a proper diagnosis
Some of the initial signs of gluten intolerance are gas and bloating.LaylaBird/Getty Images
  • Gluten intolerance symptoms include gas, bloating, cramping, and fatigue.
  • While uncomfortable, gluten intolerance doesn't cause long-term health consequences like celiac disease.
  • If you think you have a gluten intolerance, talk to your doctor before you begin cutting gluten.

Gluten - the protein found in grains like rye, wheat, and barley - gets a bad rap. But the truth is, gluten can be a healthy part of most diets.

While there isn't enough research to suggest that gluten-free diets offer meaningful health benefits, there are certain groups of people, like those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, that should avoid gluten.

To help you figure out if you really need to cut gluten out of your diet, we spoke to two dietitians about the signs and symptoms of gluten intolerance.
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Understanding gluten intolerance

Gluten intolerance - often referred to as non-celiac gluten sensitivity - is a condition that stops your body from processing or absorbing gluten normally.

People that have gluten intolerances often have similar symptoms to those with celiac disease. While the discomfort is similar, gluten intolerance is a sensitivity that is unlikely to cause long-term harm to the body.

Important: Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disease where gluten intake causes damage to the small intestines. Meanwhile, gluten intolerance may cause short-term bloating and pain, but no long-term health consequences.
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Gluten intolerance can appear at different times throughout people's lives and symptoms can range from mild to severe.

"You may see it early or later in life, it really is variable," says Meghan Windham, MPH, RD, LD a registered dietitian at Texas A&M University. "Oftentimes, the more someone is exposed to that food, the more we see that negative reaction."

The initial signs of gluten intolerance are usually gas, bloating, abdominal pain, and abnormal bowel movements, according to Rebecca Vardaman, MA, RD, LDN, a dietitian at The Celiac Space.
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Symptoms of gluten intolerance

How long it takes for symptoms to occur after you eat gluten also varies from person to person. "For some individuals, symptoms can appear in as little as an hour or as late as the next day," says Vardaman.

How to test for gluten intolerance

If you are experiencing digestive issues that are disrupting your ability to function normally, you should see a healthcare physician.

"When it starts interrupting your daily activity and life, I would say it's time to see someone to talk about treatment options," says Windham.
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Gluten intolerance is diagnosed when the doctor is able to rule out celiac disease or wheat allergy. Because gluten intolerances can't be diagnosed through bloodwork like celiac disease, it is often diagnosed through a process of elimination.

Important: "If both the celiac disease and allergy test are negative, then eliminating gluten from the diet for at least a month is recommended," says Vardaman. "If symptoms improve after eliminating gluten for a month, then it's likely a gluten intolerance," she says.

It's crucial to consult a doctor if you think you have a gluten intolerance, instead of just eliminating gluten from your diet before receiving tests.
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Gluten itself doesn't have any nutritional value. However, foods that contain gluten have other important nutrients. This means if you eliminate gluten, you may also be cutting some nutrients that your body needs.

"Most people don't realize some of the nutritional deficiencies they may get from going gluten-free," says Windham, adding people who avoid foods with gluten typically lack nutrients like fiber, vitamin B, and iron.

Foods to avoid if you have a gluten intolerance

The only treatment for gluten intolerance is to avoid foods containing gluten, such as:
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  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Some oats
  • Beer
  • Most types of bread
  • Cereal
  • Cookies
  • Crackers
  • Pasta
  • Lunchmeats
  • Salad dressings and sauces

While this may seem like a daunting list, most fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meats or fish that are not breaded or battered are gluten-free. Reading the food ingredients list can help you avoid gluten.

If you are gluten intolerant and eat gluten-containing foods, you may experience pain, but it won't affect your long-term health. Therefore, if you only experience mild symptoms after you eat gluten, you may not need to avoid some of your favorite gluten-containing foods entirely.

Insider's takeaway

Gluten is a protein found in most types of bread and processed foods. People that have a gluten intolerance can't metabolize the protein normally, which can cause a range of digestive problems and other symptoms.
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If you are experiencing symptoms that seem like gluten intolerance, it's important to talk to your doctor to identify the root cause. Celiac disease presents very similar symptoms and is a serious condition that needs to be treated.

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