Is Celiac Disease a Wheat Intolerance or Wheat Allergy?


Being unable to eat a specific food can be outright debilitating. Navigating menus and grocery stores for the lurking offender can be time consuming, and oftentimes, difficult. Having been diagnosed with celiac disease in 2010, I can attest to the difficulties of having my condition be labeled an allergy, intolerance, and fad diet. So which of these is right?

Celiac Disease Defined

Celiac disease is a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food that are important for staying healthy. The damage is due to a reaction to eating gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats. Symptoms may include but are not limited to:

  • gas
  • bloating
  • diarrhea or loose stools
  • stomach pain/cramping
  • unexplained weight loss
  • lack of energy

Because these symptoms can easily lead to alternate diagnoses, celiac disease can be difficult to spot. It is often misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome, a painful problem in the gut not caused by gluten.

Wheat Intolerance

Digesting wheat can become problematic for those with a wheat intolerance, a non-allergic reaction to eating wheat. The symptoms are similar, if not identical, to that of celiac disease. The main difference between celiac and wheat intolerance is the damage that occurs in the intestines of a person with celiac disease. Another difference is that gluten is not causing the sickness, but wheat itself. Celiac sufferers cannot eat wheat, barley, or rye because of the gluten found in these grains. Those with wheat intolerance can still have barley and rye. The cure for wheat intolerance is similar to that of celiac disease: eating a diet free of wheat.

Wheat Allergy

To confuse people even more, there is yet another wheat-related malady. Wheat Allergy is a serious reaction to wheat which can even be lethal. Unlike celiac disease and wheat intolerance, it includes allergic reactions to many different proteins found in wheat and related cereal grains. It can be gastrointestinal, but it can also be similar to hay fever, causing asthma-like respiratory symptoms, hives, rashes, contact dermatitis, cough, runny nose, and itchy eyes. This is very different from celiac disease in that with celiac disease there are no symptoms of an allergic reaction or hay fever. Avoiding wheat, not only eating it, but cooking with it and touching it, is the only way to be safe from the allergic reactions.

The Wheat Prognosis

So is celiac disease a wheat intolerance or allergy? Technically, it is neither. In a pinch, it can be called both in order to avoid explaining to a waitress the importance of a meal being gluten free.Celiac disease can cause major intestinal damage if not managed properly. The damage done by wheat intolerance can also cause problems, although they may not be as severe. Wheat allergy is different, yet can be lethal in a way different than celiac disease. All in all, it seems that this common grain causes many health issues. It will be interesting to see how it effects humans as they continue to evolve.