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HealthInfo Canterbury

Should you be gluten-free?

A gluten-free diet excludes foods that contain the protein gluten. Gluten is in wheat, rye, barley, oats, dinkel (also called spelt) and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye).

A gluten-free diet is used to treat coeliac disease. About 1% of New Zealanders have coeliac disease. They need to completely avoid gluten.

Symptoms of coeliac disease include tiredness, stomach pain and bloating. Coeliac disease can also cause a change in bowel habits. Gluten damages the lining of the small intestine. It also makes it harder for the body to absorb nutrients such as iron and vitamin D.

Some people who don't have coeliac disease may also have symptoms when they eat gluten. Their symptoms might include stomach pain and bloating. This is called non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Some people with NCGS are not reacting to the gluten. The problem is a group of carbohydrates (sugars) called FODMAPs. FODMAPs stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. Wheat contains FODMAPs. So do other common foods such as honey, milk, and some fruits and vegetables. Read our information about food intolerance and low-FODMAP eating.

If you have coeliac disease, you need to follow a strict gluten-free diet. Small amounts of gluten, even a few crumbs, can damage your small intestine. If you have NCGS, gluten won't damage your small intestine. You may be able eat small amounts and still feel comfortable.

You should talk to your doctor before removing gluten from your diet. It is important to find out whether you have coeliac disease first. You need to be eating gluten to find this out. If you don't have coeliac disease, going gluten-free might not fix your stomach problems. In some cases you may need to follow a low-FODMAP diet, a gluten-free diet or both.

A dietitian can help you to work out if you are intolerant to gluten or other foods. They will look at what you are eating and let you know what is the best way of eating for you.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. October 2015.

See also:

Coeliac disease

Irritable bowel syndrome

Page reference: 205378

Review key: HIHEI-34305