Is bloating a symptom of wheat intolerance?
If you’ve ever suffered from bloating, you know it can be uncomfortable, even painful, as well as frustrating. And with the rise of coeliac disease and gluten-free foods, it’s easy to blame your bloated belly on wheat intolerance symptoms.
But there are a variety of causes for bloating, such as allergies, dairy intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and stress. So giving up wheat might not be the solution.
Dietitian Shivaun Conn says that we should be careful about sudden diet changes. She advises only making them under professional guidance.
It’s also important to figure out possible symptom triggers and understand the difference between an allergy and an intolerance before you make any changes. You might find that you don’t have to avoid as many foods as you first thought!
What’s the difference between a food allergy and an intolerance?
Food intolerances and allergies are not the same, so they need to be managed differently.
A food intolerance means that your body is having a chemical reaction to a certain food or drink. In most cases, intolerances are less serious than allergies.
Food intolerance symptoms can include:
- stomach pain or cramps
- bloating or gas
- headaches or migraines
- shortness of breath
An allergy is your immune system reacting to foods or drinks. It can have a range of symptoms that range from a mild rash to a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.
Food allergy symptoms can include:
- rash, hives or itchy skin
- runny nose
- stomach pain or cramps
- chest pain
- breathing difficulties, including asthma and wheezing
- swelling of the face or eyes
An anaphylactic reaction needs urgent medical care. Symptoms of anaphylaxis can include:
- hoarse voice
- difficulty talking
- swelling in the face, mouth or throat
- persistent cough
- becoming pale
If you suspect that someone is having an anaphylactic reaction, call 000 immediately.
Around 1 in 20 children and 2 in 100 adults have a food allergy. But food intolerances are much more prevalent. For example, Shivaun says that approximately 75% of the population is lactose intolerant.
The difference between wheat intolerance and coeliac disease
Coeliac disease means that your body reacts to any food containing gluten. While it’s sometimes called a ‘gluten allergy’, it’s actually an autoimmune condition, not an allergy.
So if you’re diagnosed with coeliac disease, eating gluten won’t cause any of the symptoms of true allergies above. Instead, it will trigger your immune system to destroy the villi in your small intestines. Villi are the fingerlike parts of your intestinal lining that are responsible for absorbing nutrients.
You can, however, be either allergic to - or intolerant of - wheat. But gluten doesn’t just occur in wheat. It’s also present in a range of other foods, including soy sauce, rye, barley, couscous, marinades, pasta and even some beverages.
So if you suspect that you’re wheat-intolerant or even if you have a wheat allergy, you don’t need to go gluten-free. Doing so would cut out a host of foods that your body has no problem with, since they don’t contain wheat.
Shivaun advises that, “The bottom line is not to just automatically cut out gluten, because it might not be what’s causing the problem.”
In other words, before you make changes to your diet, you need to know what’s making you bloat.
How do I know if I have a wheat intolerance?
If you notice any food intolerance symptoms appear after you’ve eaten wheat, then you may be intolerant of fructans: short-chain carbohydrates within the wheat.
Fructans are part of the family of FODMAPs: short-chain carbohydrates that our bodies rapidly (and sometimes poorly) absorb. Poor absorption can lead to FODMAPs fermenting and producing gas. And in people with IBS, this gas can lead to symptoms such as:
- gut pain
Shivaun says that the best option if you experience symptoms like bloating is to visit your GP or a dietitian who specialises in allergies and intolerances. They’ll be able to advise the best course of action, for example, appropriate tests or elimination diets.
A dietitian will also be able to support you with a plan to investigate any dietary intolerances. That way, you can identify what’s causing your symptoms, and understand what you can safely eat.
And don’t despair if you discover that wheat is a contributing factor to your symptoms. While many foods contain wheat, there is a huge range of alternatives to choose from. Let’s look at how you can avoid wheat in your diet and what you can eat instead.
The most common sources of wheat
If you can’t eat wheat, you may want to remove these foods from your diet:
- breakfast cereals
Suggested low-FODMAP swaps
If you’ve had to remove wheat from your diet, Shivaun suggests you try these low-FODMAP alternatives:
- brown rice
Always check the label before buying a product because sometimes wheat can appear in ingredients where you least expect it.
What if wheat or gluten aren’t the problem?
If you’ve been tested for a wheat allergy, wheat intolerance, and coeliac disease, and the tests have all come back clear, what’s next?
Shivaun takes her clients through a few options to try to find what’s at the heart of their symptoms. Sometimes, she has clients try a low-FODMAP diet.
If that doesn't work, the bloating may be due to an intolerance to a food chemical: either one that’s added or naturally occurring. To check for this, she may ask the client to try the Royal Prince Alfred elimination diet. However, she doesn’t advise starting with this diet, as it's quite complex.
Regardless, Shivaun recommends consulting a dietitian to see if either of these diets (or any others) may be appropriate for you.
Gluten-free tips for beginners
If you’ve been diagnosed with coeliac disease, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you need to make big changes to your diet. But going gluten-free doesn’t have to be hard.
The most important step is to start by contacting a dietitian. They’ll help you to develop a plan for which gluten-containing foods you’ll cut out altogether, and which you can substitute for a gluten-free alternative.
Once you’ve got your list of gluten-free foods to buy, it’s time to go shopping. Never assume a food or product is gluten-free, though – remember to read the labels carefully.
While you’re checking for gluten, be mindful of the amounts of sugar in the product too. Some food manufacturers add large amounts of sugar when removing gluten. Less than 5 grams of sugar per 100 grams is healthier for regularly consumed foods, and between 5-22.5 grams is OK for occasional foods.
Eating excessive amounts of added sugar is bad for you, so keep an eye on how much is in your regular food and new products.
Also, avoid getting caught up in trying fad diets, which can do more harm to your body than good.
Aim to choose whole foods instead of gluten-free diet products, since they can be more nutrient-rich and better for you than many ultra-processed gluten-free products available.
When should you worry about bloating?
It’s important to realise that bloating can be normal and may not actually be a symptom of any kind of intolerance or serious condition. However, if you find you’re experiencing bloat regularly or it’s accompanied by other symptoms, speak to your health practitioner.
They’ll look at your lifestyle, diet and health to determine whether it’s something you need to worry about.
Be aware that stress can also cause bloating, so make sure you’re getting plenty of quality rest and start practising mindfulness.
And remember that a completely flat stomach is not normal.
Eating and drinking makes everyone’s stomachs change shape. It’s just more noticeable in some people than in others. Instead of focusing on the shape of your body, think about all the amazing things it does for you. Being grateful for your body helps to boost your self-worth.
Shivaun Conn is an Accredited Practising Dietitian, Accredited Nutritionist and Certified Health Coach with particular interests in nutrition, lifestyle, executive health and health behaviour change.
Reviewed by healthylife Advisory Board July 2021