Should you cut out bread to stop bloating?

Is eating bread giving you bloating and other digestive symptoms? If so, you could be 'sensitive' to wheat. Cutting out bread or changing the type you eat may help.

What's with wheat?

There are three key health problems caused by wheat.

  • Wheat allergy: reactions usually begin within minutes and include itching, rash, tongue or lip swelling and wheezing. See your GP for referral to an NHS allergy clinic.
  • Coeliac disease: also known as gluten intolerance, is a common digestive condition where your intestine can't absorb gluten found in wheat, barley, oats and rye. See your GP for a blood test.
  • Wheat sensitivity: symptoms like bloating, cramps, diarrhoea and sickness come on quite slowly, usually hours after eating wheat. There is no diagnostic test.

It’s fashionable these days to give up eating bread. More and more of us claim to suffer from wheat allergy so we shun bread and other wheat-based foods.

Genuine food allergy is in fact rarely to blame, say experts. But wheat sensitivity (also known as wheat intolerance) or simply trouble digesting wheat is increasingly common.

Bread-related gut symptoms

"Probably one-third of patients in my allergy clinic complain of digestive symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach pain after eating bread," says Isabel Skypala PhD, specialist allergy dietitian at the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust.

She says allergy is unlikely to be the culprit, but bread-related symptoms are real and wheat could be to blame.

"Some people find certain foods are simply hard to digest and wheat appears to be one of those," she explains.

Find out how to tell if you have a food allergy or intolerance.

What to do if wheat triggers digestive symptoms

If your symptoms are severe and long-lasting, especially if you have blood in your stools (poo), vomiting or painful stomach cramps, see your doctor to rule out a medical condition.

If you have bloating or other minor symptoms after eating bread, Dr Skypala recommends that you try an elimination diet. This is where you completely cut out wheat from your diet for four weeks then bring it back in gradually to see if symptoms reappear.

"When you bring wheat-based foods back in, I recommend trying weetabix or pasta first for a few days before starting on bread. It’s better to start with wheat in a more pure form as bread has so many other ingredients," Dr Skypala says.

Is it wheat intolerance or sensitivity?

If your symptoms return, it confirms you’re sensitive to wheat and will also help to show you which foods are especially troublesome. Some people may only have problems with pasta, for example, while others are fine until they eat bread.

If you are sensitive to wheat, or you have trouble digesting it, the main way to relieve your symptoms is to embark on a wheat-free or partially wheat-free diet.

The main sources of wheat

  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Cereals
  • Couscous
  • Cakes and pastries
  • Biscuits
  • Doughnuts
  • Hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP)
  • Beer
  • Soy sauce

These wheat-free foods are a great alternative:

  • Porridge, rice crispies and cornflakes
  • Buckwheat pasta
  • Quinoa
  • Popcorn

How to go on a wheat-free diet

Cutting out bread and other foods containing wheat shouldn’t harm your health, if you do it properly.

Wheat is one of our staple foods and lots of wheat products, such as breakfast cereals, are fortified with vitamins and minerals.

In the past there was a danger of running short of essential nutrients like the B vitamins and iron, if you cut out wheat. But nowadays there’s a good range of widely available wheat-free alternatives that won’t compromise a balanced diet.

Read more about vitamins and minerals.

"There are great wheat substitutes that you can buy off the supermarket shelf now. Go for gluten-free bread and try other types of grains such as quinoa, corn and rice," says Dr Skypala. "Just make sure you substitute other equally nutritious foods for the wheat-based ones you’re cutting out."

Be sure to cut out all wheat from your diet. Some sources of wheat are obvious, such as bread, but others are less so, such as soy sauce (see box).

Tummy-friendly breads

The good news is that you might not need to cut out bread completely.

Some people with wheat sensitivity have no problems when they eat toast (cooked wheat tends to be easier to digest), sourdough bread, bread cooked with flour made from French wheat, or any bread from a specialist bakery rather than a supermarket.

"Bakeries in supermarkets use the Chorleywood bread-making process, which cuts out the second rising to speed up the baking. People seem to have more problems digesting supermarket breads, so I’d always recommend avoiding store-bought loaves," says Dr Skypala.

The anti-bloat FODMAP diet

A specific type of wheat-free diet may help certain people with wheat sensitivity.

Designed originally for people with irritable bowel syndrome, the FODMAP diet is now being recommended by dietitians to people who have problems digesting wheat.

It’s not a catchy name but FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, which are types of carbohydrates that aren’t easily broken down and absorbed by the gut.

Essentially, the diet entails cutting out fermentable foods that can cause bacterial growth, leading to diarrhoea and bloating. That means cutting out wheat and other fermentable foods such as onion, apple, pears, mushrooms, honey, cabbage and sometimes milk.

"The FODMAP diet has been hugely successful for people with IBS. Because it excludes wheat, many people with wheat sensitivity may also find it helpful," says Dr Skypala.

The FODMAP diet works best if it's coupled with special dietary advice from a dietitian. There are FODMAP-trained dietitians working in the NHS and privately. If you want to see an NHS dietitian, ask your GP or consultant to refer you. 

Read more about the FODMAP diet.

Here's a list of foods suitable on a FODMAP diet (PDF, 369kb).

Find out more about the best foods to help your digestion.

 

Page last reviewed: 24/05/2013

Next review due: 24/05/2015

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Comments

The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Laharnaman said on 12 June 2014

The fact that modern-day people are experiencing these problems with bread should be a clue to all of us - most especially to the medical profession.

The way bread is made changed radically in the 20th. century t the detriment of our health.

Traditional sourdough bread which is fermented in such a way as to neutralize harmful phyto chemicals as well as reducing gluten will go a long way to restoring the gut flora of those affected.

Simply google 'sourdough bread' or 'fermented food' to understand how the whole area of healthy gut flora needs to be understood before one can even begin to tackle disorders such as celiac disease - not to mention many others.

Good health!

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Warby1953 said on 22 February 2014

All I can say is ... I decided to follow a "paleo" diet for a week whilst my partner was away - no bread or wheat based products, no wind, did not feel bloated after meals, did not feel I missed anything _ and I LOVE bread... bought loads of chicken wings and cooked them and kept in fridge, ate whenever I felt peckish ... worked for me and lost 3lbs during week

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