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What to know about a gluten-free diet

Written By: Simone Sonnier and Andi Atkinson | Updated: December 16, 2022
A women holds up wheat grain in one hand and her stomach in another

Do wheat products make your stomach grumble? Before you consider a gluten-free diet, talk to a medical specialist first.

The buzz around gluten, the general name for protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, has resulted in countless new or altered food products on the market. However, this awareness may prompt some people to go on a gluten-free diet unnecessarily and potentially increase their risk of nutritional deficiencies or even diabetes.

So who truly needs to avoid gluten?

Pritesh Mutha, MD
Pritesh Mutha, MD

“The only individuals who require a gluten-free diet for life are those diagnosed with celiac disease,” said Pritesh Mutha, MD, gastroenterologist with UT Physicians. “Those who have a gluten intolerance may reduce their intake to improve symptoms, but a strict diet is not needed.”

Gluten intolerance affects approximately 5% of the world population. Those sensitive to gluten experience symptoms similar to irritable bowel syndrome, such as diarrhea, bloating, gas, and/or abdominal pain. Other signs may include weight loss, nausea, constipation, heartburn, fatigue, headache, joint pain, and/or brain fog.

Gluten intolerance does not cause permanent damage to the small intestine, and it can be managed with some reasonable diet changes, according to Mutha, associate professor of gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.

Those with celiac disease, however, cannot handle even the smallest amount in their food.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune genetic disorder that affects about 1% of the world population, with those of European descent at higher risk. Gluten causes the immune system to trigger antibodies that attack and damage the small intestine. Individuals are diagnosed through a series of blood tests and an upper endoscopy with a biopsy of the small intestine.

Symptoms are similar to those of gluten intolerance but may also include vomiting, skin rash, and health abnormalities, such as anemia, dental cavities, mouth ulcers, osteoporosis, arthritis, high liver enzymes, neurological disorders, menstrual problems, infertility, nutritional deficiencies, and associated autoimmune diseases.

Those who suspect they suffer from gluten intolerance or celiac disease should not begin a gluten-free diet without speaking to a specialist first.

“Starting a gluten-free diet without proper testing, diagnosis, and guidance from a medical expert can have serious consequences,” Mutha said. “You could run the risk of developing nutritional deficiencies or even diabetes from consuming more highly processed foods with refined carbohydrates. It’s best to know what condition you have first and then receive diet and nutritional guidance from a doctor or registered dietitian.”

To schedule an appointment with Mutha or another board-certified gastroenterologist, call UT Physicians at 888-488-3627 or request one online.

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As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.