Coeliac awareness week: why are so many of us becoming gluten intolerant?

All over the world, people are taking steps to reduce, or even eliminate, their consumption of gluten. In fact, in the UK alone, one in three adults is currently ‘avoiding or actively reducing’ their gluten intake. Whilst some are doing so in an attempt to follow the recent health ‘trend,’ many more are doing so to simply feel healthier.

The proof, it seems, is in the gluten free pudding. Although many are not medically diagnosed with celiac disease, gluten avoiders tout a greater sense of physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing as their reason for doing so. With a wide range of symptoms ranging from gastrointestinal distress, mental disorders, skin complaints and allergies all being linked to gluten intolerance, people are removing gluten from their diets for a plethora of reasons. But just what is causing the rapid rise in gluten intolerance?

Gluten in our diet

Gluten is a protein found in common grains including wheat, barley, and rye. Wheat alone provides about 20% of the world’s calories, significantly more than any other food on the planet. It has been a staple food in our diets for thousands of years; so why, all of a sudden, has it become so threatening? As a coeliac myself, I know first-hand the problems that wheat can cause, but until now, have never put a great deal of thought into why.


A common theory that is often put forward by mainstream media is that gluten intolerance is an illness of modern creation; in short, it doesn’t really exist at all. Many people think that they suffer from it, when really our collective fear is irrational and brought on by the modern day ‘agenda’ against wheat.

But despite these claims, there is proof that gluten intolerance is on the rise. Indeed, a recent study using frozen blood samples taken from Air Force recruits 50 years ago has shown that the intolerance of wheat gluten has increased by 400% in this 50 year period.

For more proof that gluten intolerance is indeed a physical complaint rather than a psychological one, we can take a look at a recent combined study by Monash University and the gastroenterology unit at Alfred Hospital, Melbourne. 34 people were recruited, all of which suffered from irritable bowel syndrome. In a double blind study, all patients were told that they would be embarking on a strict gluten free diet; whereas, in reality, half of the patients were given bread and muffins that contained gluten. Most of those who ate the gluten reported that the pain persisted, whilst most of the others claimed it went away. Although this study was undoubtedly small scale, it does suggest that the effects of gluten consumption go far beyond the psychological.

Gluten intolerance vs coeliac disease

Medical professionals are pointing to the relatively stable levels of diagnoses of coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition that results from the consumption of gluten, as evidence that gluten intolerance is not rising. Levels of coeliac diagnoses have remained fairly stable in the last 25 years, with approximately 0.7 – 1.0% of the world’s population affected by this condition.

But here’s the key information; coeliac disease and gluten intolerance are not the same thing. Conventional testing for coeliac disease only screens for a reaction to two fractions of the wheat protein, alpha-gliadin and transglutaminase-2; yet, many people with gluten intolerance react to other fractions of the wheat protein, including beta, gamma and omega-gliadin, WGA, deamidated gliadin, and other types of transglutaminase, including type 3 and type 6.

So, whilst you may not be ‘coeliac’ in the medical sense of the word, you may very well be gluten intolerant. If you react adversely to wheat, you don’t need a medical diagnosis to tell you whether you should eat it or not.

What is causing the rise in gluten intolerance?

There are many theories put forward as to why we are seeing such a rapid rise in wheat intolerance. One theory commonly proposed is the deteriorating quality of modern wheat, and how the rise of GMO farming is causing the wheat proteins to be more troublesome to digest; although, this has never been proven by any scientific studies. Another theory is that we are now consuming more gluten in our breads, cakes and muffins, as manufacturers actually add additional gluten to give their food a fluffier, bouncier texture.

As the gluten concentration is higher, we are more likely to react. A third theory, and the most scientifically-based of them all, is that the rise of processed and refined foods in the modern diet is damaging our gut flora; making it harder for many of us to digest many different foods, gluten being one of them.

How to find out if you are gluten intolerant

Gluten intolerance can affect nearly every tissue in the body, including the digestive system, endocrine system, cardiovascular system, liver, skin and brain; meaning symptoms of gluten intolerance are so vast and wide ranging, in many cases, doctors don’t even consider gluten as a culprit. If you are suffering from any health issue that you think could be attributed to gluten, consider embarking on an elimination diet, during which you remove gluten from your diet for at least 28 days. Try to keep everything else consistent, and monitor your symptoms during this process. If your symptoms improve, you may well have your answer.

Whether you’re coeliac or gluten intolerant, today’s society makes it easier than ever before to maintain your gluten free diet. Restaurant staff no longer scoff when you ask for a gluten free option – many even have dedicated menus to cater for your needs. Thanks to a growing awareness of cross contamination, diligent chefs will prepare all of their gluten free options in a separate area of their kitchen. Gluten free products are now widely available in supermarkets, and new EU packaging laws that came into place at the end of last year make it compulsory to emphasise gluten (and other common allergens) in bold on the ingredients list.

5 top tips for gluten free living:

Take a high quality probiotic. If you are intolerant to any food, it could be the sign of an underlying digestive issue. By taking a high quality probiotic you can repopulate your gut with healthy bacteria and help improve digestive function.

Limit gluten free ‘substitutes’. Gluten free breads, pastas, and cakes are often disappointing, and in many cases are packed full of artificial ingredients and preservatives. Always prioritise real food wherever possible, but if you do get a craving for an old gluten-containing favourite, bake it yourself instead. Coconut flour, cassava flour and almond meal are excellent flour substitutes.

Always read the label. Even the most inconspicuous of products can have gluten hiding in them. Always read the label to avoid any unwanted gluten consumption.

Plan ahead. If you are going out for the day, research the area to look for restaurants that can cater for your needs. Consider calling them beforehand to let them know that you will be dining with them; often, they will make special preparations to ensure you are properly looked after.

Take control. By far the best way to avoid unwanted gluten consumption is to take control of your own cooking, preparing as many of your meals as possible from scratch. Not only will this help you to avoid gluten, but it’s much healthier too!


1) http://www.bmj.com/content/319/7204/236
2) http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/03/grain
3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3448089/