Living and Eating with Wheat Allergy and Celiac Disease

What You Need to Know About Living with Wheat Allergy or Celiac Disease

If you've been diagnosed with a wheat allergy or celiac disease, you may understandably have lots of questions, including the all-important one: What can I eat?

You can eat lots of foods, but it might take some re-training to learn what foods you need to avoid, what to look for, and how to manage living and eating with wheat allergy or celiac disease. A gluten-free diet is the treatment for celiac disease. Celiac disease isn't a wheat allergy, but the prescription for what to eat with each condition overlaps since gluten is found in wheat.

Wheat is in more foods than you might guess -- not just baked goods and pasta, but also sauces and a vast number of processed foods. Getting to know the hidden sources of wheat and gluten will help you navigate your food choices. The good news is, as awareness of gluten intolerance and wheat allergy has grown in recent years, so too has the selection of wheat-free alternatives to common foods.

Here is a collection of great resources for people living with a wheat allergy or Celiac disease and their loved ones. From educating yourself about your condition to learning how to eat out, this guide will help you navigate life with your new diagnosis.

Educate Yourself About Your Condition

A tray of gluten-free pastries.
A tray of gluten-free pastries. JPM/Getty Images

Wheat allergy and celiac disease are different conditions. Both require people with those conditions to strictly avoid wheat (and, in the case of celiac disease, other gluten-containing grains) to maintain good health. But wheat allergy, like other allergies, is an IgE-bound histamine reaction of the immune system, while celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects your small intestines. Knowing how to treat an inadvertent exposure, what kind of doctor is best suited to oversee your care, and whether you'll have the condition forever are among the early questions you may have.

What You Can Eat; What to Avoid

Wheat allergy and celiac disease both mean a wheat-free diet. People with celiac must avoid other gluten-containing grains, such as rye and barley. Since oats are often processed in facilities that handle gluten-containing grains, so if you have celiac, be sure to look for the "gluten-free" oats label. While you might not think you eat barley and rye (unless you're a big fan of pumpernickel bread), you may be surprised to learn that barley malt is a common ingredient in processed foods, and both rye and barley are present in some alcoholic beverages.

Reading Labels for Wheat Allergy and Celiac Disease

Thanks to a 2004 labeling law, FALCPA, foods containing—or processed in facilities that use—the top eight most common food allergens must say so on the package. As a "top eight" allergen, wheat must be listed on food labels in "plain language," either in the ingredient list or just below. The FDA does not yet have a set rule for the use of the term "gluten-free," so if you're avoiding gluten, you must learn which ingredients may indicate the presence of gluten-containing ingredients.

Eating Out With Allergies and Intolerances

Public awareness of celiac disease has led to a rise in gluten-free menus at chain restaurants large and small -- a boon for those with wheat-free diets as well. But it's important to take basic precautions before eating out with any food allergy. Some cuisines are naturally low in wheat or can be adapted relatively easily for safer restaurant dining.

Coping With The Diagnosis

Getting used to an allergy diagnosis -- whether you're an adult learning about a condition for the first time or the parent of an allergic child -- is a major adjustment. Expect a period of stress as you get used to the demands of a new diet and learn to negotiate social situations. Keep reminding yourself that many people have been coping with food allergies and severe food intolerances and are living rich, full lives (and even eating well) -- you can too!

Managing Severe Allergic Reactions

Different people have different symptoms when exposed to allergens. In the case of wheat, a couple of the more common symptoms are severe: asthma attacks and anaphylactic shock. If your doctor considers you at risk for either of these reactions, you'll be given rescue medication and shown how to use it. At any rate, you should be aware of what a severe allergic reaction looks like if you have a food allergy.

Special Health Concerns for People with Celiac

Celiac disease isn't an allergy and doesn't come with anaphylaxis risks. But that doesn't mean it's not serious: people with celiac disease who don't comply with their diets are at increased risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, osteoporosis and cancer. People with celiac disease are also more likely to have or develop other autoimmune disorders. If you have celiac disease, your care will be overseen by a gastroenterologist, who can monitor the condition of your small intestine by endoscopy to see if damage caused by inadvertent gluten exposure is occurring.