While most people are familiar with the term “gluten free” as a trending IBS diet, still very few people understand what gluten actually is, what a gluten-free diet entails, when it’s clinically appropriate (versus unnecessarily restrictive) to go gluten free, and how to tell the difference between an adverse reaction caused by wheat vs gluten.
…Contrary to the popular narrative, wheat and gluten are NOT one and the same! And not everyone needs to go wheat free OR gluten free to be healthy. (But some people can benefit!)
In this article I’m going to teach you the difference between wheat and gluten, as well as show you how to discern a wheat sensitivity from a wheat intolerance from a gluten allergy via my holistic nutrition lens, so you can navigate nutrition labels with more clarity on your gut healing journey.
Disclaimer: This article was written for educational purposes. This is not medical or nutritional advice. Please make sure you’re working 1:1 with a doctor and registered dietitian if you’re navigating digestive health issues of any kind!
Disclosure: This article contains an affiliate link for an IBS food diary that I created, which is available for sale exclusively on Amazon. As an Amazon Associate, and as the author of the IBS food diary, if you make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you!
Table of Contents
What is wheat?
Wheat is a is a grassy edible plant which looks a lot like Avena sativa (oats) when out in the field. This whole grain and dietary staple has been grown, harvested, cultivated, processed, and consumed by our ancestors for over 10,000 years, according to Frontiers in nutrition. (1)
Wheat is also a great nutrient-dense food source of starchy complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, antioxidants, and B vitamins.
As a crop, wheat grows easily, in abundance, all over the world, and it grows in a variety of different species which I’ll share below.
Types of wheat
There are many different variations, forms, and species of wheat, which you may or may not have seen at some point in your local supermarket or health food store.
Any time you’re eating a food product or recipe made with any of the following ingredients listed below, you’re eating wheat!
These are the most common different types of wheat in food:
- Whole wheat (“common wheat”)
- Hard red winter wheat
- Soft red winter wheat
- Hard red spring wheat
- Hard white wheat
- Soft white white
- Durum wheat – often used for making pasta
- Emmer wheat (hulled wheat)
- Semolina (also used in pasta)
- Kamut (“Khorasan wheat”)
- Wheat germ (the nutrient-dense kernel of the grain, removed from the starch)
There are also different types of flour derived from wheat:
- White whole wheat flour
- Whole wheat flour
- All-purpose flour
- Bread flour
- Cake flour
- Pastry flour
- Self-rising flour
- Spelt flour
Food sources of wheat
People consume wheat a lot more than they realize! You aren’t only consuming wheat when you eat “whole wheat” bread or “whole wheat” pasta; wheat is also the crop from which all-purpose flour (aka mainstream “flour”) and many other types of flour are derived.
- For example, any time you’re eating a commercial, mainstream variation of any of the following:
- Most breads
- Certain types of gravies or sauces
- Recipes with breadcrumbs
- Anything with stuffing
- Anything fried in a batter
…unless it’s specified to be “gluten free”, you’re most likely eating wheat.
What about sourdough?
It’s true – sourdough bread is usually made with bread flour, which comes from wheat! But not all sourdough breads contain wheat. Sourdough is a term which actually describes a type of fermentation which can be done on virtually any type of flour, wheat or not.
Is wheat good or bad?
Again, contrary to the mainstream narrative, wheat is not inherently bad.
In fact, studies have determined wheat can serve as a primary source of energy (via complex carbohydrates) as well as provide us with prebiotics (specifically resistant starch and fructans), micronutrients such as B vitamins, antioxidants (phytochemicals), and more. (2)
However, since one size never fits all, wheat isn’t for everyone! Some people may find they have an allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity to wheat.
- People who have celiac disease (an allergy to gluten) will also get sick from eating wheat, since it contains gluten.
- Those with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) may find that eating wheat makes them sick because wheat contains fructans, which are high in FODMAPS.
- Many others are walking around with a non-celiac wheat sensitivity, which can cause unwanted symptoms such as nausea/vomiting, diarrhea, cramping, upset stomach, migraines, fatigue, joint pain, or other issues (depending on the type and severity of the adverse reaction to wheat).
I’ll be diving more into the different types of adverse reactions to wheat and/or gluten later in this artucle.
In the meantime, if you’re unsure whether or not wheat will work well for your body, you may want to consider keeping an IBS food diary.
Is wheat genetically modified (GMO)?
On another note, the wheat primarily grown and cultivated in the U.S. nowadays is not the same crop that our ancestors grew and consumed for tens of thousands of years. The majority of wheat in the U.S. is genetically modified (GMO) so that this crop can be owned and subsidized by the government. (3)
Research has found that the genetic modification of wheat seems to have resulted in a significant increase in the gluten concentration of whole wheat at baseline. Whether or not this is contributing to the exponential rise in gut issues (such as celiac disease) is still up for debate. (4)
Does all wheat contain gluten?
It’s important to note that while all types of wheat contain gluten, not all gluten-containing grains contain wheat.
Speaking of gluten…
What is gluten?
From a culinary standpoint, gluten is what helps dough retain moisture and elasticity. That explains why gluten free baked goods tend to be more dry and crumbly! (If you’ve ever eaten gluten free foods first-hand, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) 😉
Which grains contain gluten?
Gluten is naturally found only in certain types of grains which include wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (which is a cross between wheat and rye).
- Gluten can also sometimes be found in oats that are not certified “gluten free”, due to cross-contamination with gluten-containing crops (i.e. wheat).
Is gluten bad?
Like wheat, gluten is not inherently bad. It’s just a protein found in certain grains.
However, for people with celiac disease and/or Hashimoto’s, eating gluten is unfortunately going to be detrimental to your health.
- Celiac disease is an autoimmune type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in which you have an allergy to gluten. In this case, eating gluten will cause your intestinal tissue to attack itself.
- Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune hypothyroid condition in which the gliadin in gluten mimics thyroid tissue, and can stimulate thyroid antibodies to attack the thyroid.
And in cases of leaky gut syndrome, people with a compromised gut lining may struggle to repair the cellular level damage caused by gliadin (which is more concentrated in gluten from genetically altered wheat in the U.S.). (6, 7, 8)
- This happens because gliadin, a protein within gluten, when ingested, has been found to stimulate the release of a chemical called zonulin into the bloodstream. (6)
- Zonulin in the body is an issue for people with leaky gut, because zonulin further increases gut permeability. (6, 7, 8)
When to go wheat free vs gluten free
There are lots of people out there who don’t have celiac disease (their celiac test came back negative) but still find they feel SO much better after going “gluten free.”
What’s up with that?!
I’m here to tell you: if you notice you feel better from going gluten free (which, by default, also means wheat free), and you don’t have celiac disease, it’s probably NOT just in your head.
There are a few explanations for this, which most people aren’t aware of. Let’s unpack them!
Non-celiac wheat sensitivitiy
While celiac disease means you have a gluten allergy, there’s also such thing as a non-celiac wheat sensitivity (NCWS). (9, 10, 11) A wheat sensitivity means you don’t have celiac disease (so gluten actually isn’t the issue).
The underlying cause of NCWS is not completely clear, but many studies are attributing some NCWS reactions to be caused by wheat amylase-trypsin inhibitors. (10) In this case, it’s a food sensitivity which means some of the white blood cells in your immune system will release chemical mediators into your bloodstream, causing an inflammatory reaction of some kind, when you eat wheat. (This reaction is called “mediator release” and can happen with virtually any food that you’re sensitive to.)
While gluten allergy and wheat intolerance reactions manifest exclusively as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms related to the gut, non-celiac wheat sensitivity symptoms may also show up as extreme fatigue, migraines, joint pain, depression, or something else that isn’t presenting directly as symptoms in your gut. Non-celiac wheat sensitivity may also be a culprit in triggering flares in other types of IBD that are NOT celiac disease. (10)
- If you’d like to find out if you have this type of wheat sensitivity, you may want to look into mediator release testing (MRT).
If you find you do have a non-celiac wheat sensitivity, this means you can’t eat wheat, but you CAN eat other types of gluten-containing grains (such as barley and rye).
- FYI – you’ll just want to be careful that if you eat something like rye bread, it doesn’t contain any wheat-derived flour.
- (As a heads, up, most commercial rye breads are cut with all-purpose flour or bread flour, and this may be the case for other barley/rye products.)
On the surface level, celiac disease and non-celiac wheat sensitivity overlap a LOT:
- The symptoms of celiac disease and non-celiac wheat sensitivity are most often very similar.
- Most gluten-containing staple foods also contain wheat.
No wonder so many people who don’t have celiac are feeling better when they go “gluten free”!
And it doesn’t stop there – we still need to talk about fructans.
Wheat intolerance – aka fructan intolerance
If you don’t have celiac disease, AND wheat didn’t show up as being a reactive food in your MRT food sensitivity test, BUT you know for sure that eating wheat (or gluten) seems to send you into an IBS flare… chances are you’ve got a fructan intolerance!
This is another scenario in which you could benefit from going wheat free vs gluten free, and in which you’ll see a whole lot of overlap with symptoms of a gluten allergy.
What the heck are fructans?
Fructans are a type of prebiotic which can feed certain types of healthy microbes in the gut; however, fructans are also considered a type of FODMAP (aka “fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols”). (Learn more about FODMAPs & the low FODMAP diet here!)
People who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and/or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) are most likely to have a fructan intolerance which is often mis-labeled to be a non-celiac wheat/gluten sensitivity or “gluten intolerance.”. (11, 12, 13)
If you find based on proper food logging that you feel sick when you eat wheat or gluten-containing foods, you may actually have a fructan intolerance!
Symptoms of fructan intolerance
The most common symptoms of fructan intolerance include any or all of the following, after eating foods that contain wheat: (13)
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal distension
These symptoms are caused by bacteria in the small intestines that feed off of undigested fructans. The fermentation process produces gases like methane or hydrogen in the process, and will manifest as IBS.
Avoiding wheat (but not necessarily other gluten-containing grains like barley or rye) could give you a lot of relief if you have a fructan intolerance. (In some cases, you may also find you benefit from sticking to low FODMAP foods/recipes for IBS/SIBO symptom management!)
How can you go wheat free but not gluten free?
If you find you have a non-celiac wheat sensitivity and/or a wheat intolerance (fructan intolerance), you may not need to cut out all gluten from your diet but you could benefit from removing wheat (only AFTER ruling out celiac disease!).
However in the beginning, one of the easiest ways to go wheat-free IS to choose commercial grain products and restaurant menu items that are certified gluten free since most stuff does contain wheat. This helps to take away a lot of guess-work, because even most commercial rye breads are usually cut with wheat flour. (This is precisely why you’re seeing so many people jumping on the gluten free bandwagon!)
While there are a few exceptions to going gluten free in the cases of a wheat sensitivity or fructan intolerance, such as in the case of wanting to make a barley pearl recipe, most of the time, opting for gluten free is the safest way to steer clear of wheat which is in most types of processed foods that aren’t certified gluten free.
When do you need to go gluten free?
Going gluten free is something that may be helpful for anyone who has uncovered that they have celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which eating anything that contains gluten (or anything that has even made direct CONTACT with gluten – aka “cross-contamintation”) will stimulate your intestines to attack themselves.
But don’t go gluten-free until AFTER getting a celiac test!
If you suspect that you’ve got celiac disease, and you notice that you feel sick after eating gluten-containing grains (i.e. wheat, barley, rye), it’s important to make sure you don’t go on a gluten free diet until after you’ve gotten the celiac blood test or intestinal biopsy.
- This is because going on a gluten free diet can lead to a false negative celiac test.
If you do have celiac disease, you’ll need to go 100% gluten free due to a gluten allergy.
If you found this helpful and would like to learn more about going wheat free, low FODMAP, and/or gluten free, you may also want to check out some of the following articles:
- The 7 Best Gluten Free Meal Delivery Services of 2022
- Cosmopolitan’s take on the low FODMAP diet for IBS
- What’s the Best IBS Diet? (2022)
- The Best Carbs for Gut Health, According to Dietitians
- Gluten/wheat and heart palpitations
- 50+ Tasty Low FODMAP Snacks
Summing it up: the difference between wheat and gluten
Wheat is one of several types of grains that contains gluten. Wheat is also high in the FODMAP, fructans, which are a prebiotic but which can also trigger IBS symptoms in some people.
On the other hand, gluten is not a type of grain; it is a specific protein constituent which is naturally occurring in certain types of grains (including wheat, barley, rye, and triticale).
While some people with a wheat sensitivity or wheat allergy can still eat gluten in wheat-free grains (such as barley, rye, and triticale), people cannot eat wheat if they have a gluten allergy (such as in cases of celiac disease).
Still, people with a wheat sensitivity may often benefit from opting for “gluten free” options at restaurants and in grocery stores, because most grain products that are not gluten free do contain wheat.
If you’d like some extra support navigating whether or not you shuold be eating wheat, gluten, or FODMAPs on your gut healing journey, make sure to grab a copy of the IBS food diary, and/or feel free to reach out to see if you could benefit from private 1:1 functional nutrition coaching!