Celiac Disease vs. Gluten Intolerance

When it comes to health issues regarding the digestion of gluten, the terms Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance are often used interchangeably. However, the two terms are not synonymous. While it is true that both terms refer to a person who cannot properly digest gluten, a substance found in wheat, barley, and rye, not all who have this issue have Celiac Disease. Said differently, a person can be gluten intolerant without having Celiac Disease; however, all who have Celiac Disease are gluten intolerant. Below is an explanation of the difference between Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance.


Celiac Disease

Celiac Disease is the most severe form of gluten intolerance. When a person with Celiac Disease eats a food product containing gluten, the small intestine responds with an allergic response. The small intestine is lined with small, finger-like tissue projections, called villi, which form a large surface. This surface is where the body absorbs nutrients from the foods being digested. When gluten passes this area in a person with Celiac Disease, the villi flatten out, causing inflammation of the lining of the intestine and reducing the area available for nutrient absorption. In severe cases, this can lead to the person being unable to absorb the required nutrients from food, a condition called malabsorption. This can lead to serious issues involving the bones and can diminish overall health, leading to malnourishment. A person with Celiac Disease will experience uncomfortable and often painful symptoms after eating a product containing gluten. These symptoms include gas, bloating, abdominal discomfort, abnormal stools, weight loss, fatigue, and even vomiting.


Gluten Intolerance

Gluten intolerance is much milder than Celiac Disease, but it usually causes enough discomfort for a person to realize that something he or she ate did not sit well. Contrary to the belief of some, gluten intolerance is not a food allergy, it is, as the name implies, a food intolerance. A food allergy indicates that an immune system response is enacted when the food is eaten; when speaking of gluten, the allergic reaction is more closely associated to Celiac Disease than gluten intolerance. Those with gluten intolerance are not allergic to gluten, they simply cannot process gluten. The symptoms of gluten intolerance can seem, at first, to have nothing to do with the body’s intolerance of food. Some symptoms include headaches, joint pain, fat in the stools, depression, Eczema, irritability, and other similar symptoms. The body cannot process gluten, so it is trying to get rid of it, and in the process the person can feel very ill.


The Basic Comparison

The main differences between Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance have to do with whether the body is reacting due to an allergy or an intolerance. To review, the basic differences are outlined below.

  • Celiac Disease is an accute and sudden allergic reaction to gluten in the system, while gluten intolerance is merely an intolerance of gluten causing widespread discomfort as the body tries to figure out what to do with the gluten.
  • A person can be gluten intolerant without having Celiac Disease, however, Celiac Disease is an extreme form of gluten intolerance.
  • Thinking of gluten intolerance on a continuum, gluten intolerance is at the lower end, with subtle symptoms that have a slow onset; the severe side of the continuum is Celiac Disease, where that intolerance has turned into an allergy.


Obtaining Protein when Gluten Intolerant

Gluten is a protein source which is found in barley, wheat, rye, and some oats. When the body cannot process this protein, a person can end up being deficient in protein. While eating meat is an option, some packaged meat is processed with wheat flour and, as such, is not gluten-free. However, most grocery stores meats that are purchased fresh are acceptable for consumption by those with gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease.

A gluten free diet is the easiest way for someone with gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease to minimize the damage to the body caused by eating gluten and aid in nutrient absorption. Fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts, unbreaded and uncoated meats that are fresh from the butcher, most dairy products, and fresh eggs are all gluten free and can be consumed without concern. Avoid pastas, cereals, breads, sauces, vegetables canned in sauce, seasoned rice mixes, french fries, and the like unless the product is labeled gluten free. Adding supplements is important for those with any type of gluten intolerance, including Celiac Disease. Gluten free protein bars and gluten free nutrition bars can be very helpful in filling the nutritional gaps that are often present with these conditions. Sticking to a gluten free diet will be very helpful in nutrient absorption, but adding supplements can help to ensure that all the necessary nutrients are being obtained and absorbed by the body.