The Dangers of Self-Diagnosing Wheat Allergy or Intolerance

The Dangers of Self-Diagnosing Wheat Allergy or Intolerance

A new study shows people who diagnose themselves as being intolerant or allergic to wheat without seeking medical advice are putting themselves at risk of serious health consequences.

The study, on the eating habits of more than 1000 adults in Australia, shows that up to 10% of people are cutting wheat from their diets without seeking medical advice. The majority citing a range of symptoms such as bloating, wind, stomach pain or feeling tired after eating wheat.

Lead author on the paper and Research Fellow at the CSIRO Food and Nutrition Flagship, Dr Sinead Golley, said, "They avoid wheat-based foods in an attempt to control their symptoms, but they are mostly doing it without any formal medical diagnosis that might indicate an intolerance or allergy."

Coeliac disease is a serious autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system damages the lining of the small bowel when gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, is eaten. Left untreated, coeliac disease can lead to a number of complications including osteoporosis and in rare cases even small bowel cancer.

According to charity Coeliac UK, 1% of people in the UK has coeliac disease: key symptoms include:

  • Frequent bouts of diarrhoea
  • Stomach pain and cramping
  • Regular mouth ulcers
  • Ongoing fatigue
  • Lots of gas and bloating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Unexplained anaemia

The results of the study are a concern for Dr Golley and her colleagues, who believe that the decision to self-diagnose and control symptoms by avoiding wheat could have health consequences.

"Wholegrain cereals make a positive contribution to health by supplying a range of nutrients including protein, fibre and other carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals," said Dr Golley. "By avoiding wheat, people may be missing out on very important nutrients."

"In addition, in bypassing medical advice through self-diagnosing they are potentially at risk of a serious clinical condition going undetected," she said.

Irritable bowel syndrome could be the cause of abdominal pain and altered bowel habits in some individuals. It could also be the case that people are cutting out wheat when other dietary components are actually to blame.

"Although we didn't examine it in this study, a possible contributor to the abdominal symptoms in some of these people could be simple sugars, such as fructans and lactose, which are present in many foods, including bread products," said Dr Golley.

Fructans and lactose fall into a group of carbohydrate molecules believed to contribute to some symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

So why do so many people not take medical advice when it comes to possible food intolerance or allergy issues?

The research found that women were more likely to cut out wheat, and in those with a lowered receptiveness to conventional medicine and a greater receptiveness to complementary medicine.

"Food intolerances are particularly hard to diagnose with certainty, so mainstream medicine may not always have the definitive answers that these people may be looking for," said Dr Golley.

"There is a great deal of information to be found outside medical sources attributing ill-effects to the consumption of certain foods. These sources can include complementary medicine, family and friends and the media”

Wheat contains gluten, which provokes an immune reaction in susceptible individuals. However, the pattern of survey responses regarding symptoms does not suggest an allergenic or autoimmune cause; wheat avoiders do not seem to be undiagnosed coeliacs.

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  • Sinéad Golley, Nadia Corsini, David Topping, Matthew Morell and Philip Mohr (2015). Motivations for avoiding wheat consumption in Australia: results from a population survey. Public Health Nutrition, 18, pp 490-499. doi:10.1017/S1368980014000652. 
  • Food avoidance: some answers, more questions Sinead Golley, Philip Mohr and David Topping  
  • The oldest and largest coeliac disease charity in the world Coeliac UK
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