Gut Pain? What to Eat and What to Avoid

A registered dietitian explains how eating whole grains can cause abdominal pain in some people. The good news is there are plenty of grain-free options available today.

Would Grain Be the Cause of Your Gut PainWhole grains can be a healthy part of a balanced diet but if you suffer from chronic gastrointestinal tract pain, some grains can wreak havoc with your gut.If you’re one of the 60 to 70 million Americans living with digestive diseases, chances are that common grain foods have become a pain in your gut. Here’s what you need to know about which grains to include in your diet and which you may want to avoid.

For most people, whole-grains are a healthy part of a balanced diet. They provide vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber necessary to keep the gastrointestinal tract healthy and functioning properly. Whole grains, especially oats, play an important role in maintaining the gut microbiota, or the balance of bacteria that keeps the digestive system healthy and potentially helps prevent chronic disease. If your gut issues are limited to constipation or diverticulosis, a high-fiber diet that includes plenty of whole-grain and multi-grain foods can help your digestive tract run smoothly and prevent flare-ups.

But if you suffer from celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, wheat intolerance, leaky gut syndrome, or any chronic condition that affects your gastrointestinal tract, some grain foods can wreak havoc with your gut and also cause discomfort in other parts of your body. You know the symptoms: abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, intestinal gas, fatigue, brain fog, and sometimes headaches and musculoskeletal pain. Not fun!

Allergy, Intolerance, or Leaky Gut?

Proteins like gluten, found in wheat and other grains, can cause a variety of allergic responses in susceptible people, including stuffy or runny nose, skin rashes, lung irritation, and even an anaphylactic, or whole-body, response that could lead to death. But gastrointestinal discomfort is not usually a symptom of wheat allergy.

Wheat intolerance, which is a different condition than wheat allergy, is associated with several medical conditions, including celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. These chronic inflammatory disorders cause intestinal pain and distress whenever a variety of wheat or other gluten-containing grains is consumed. That includes rye, barley, malted barley, oats (unless labeled gluten-free), Kamut, spelt, triticale, emmer, einkorn, farro, graham flour, pastas and breads made with semolina or durum wheat, couscous, and matzo meal. It is important to check the ingredient list on all processed foods as well, since many commercial products contain some form of wheat or other grain.

Leaky gut syndrome—a condition that allows undigested food particles and other potentially harmful substances to pass through the intestinal wall and into the blood stream—has been linked to inflammatory bowel disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, asthma and other inflammatory conditions, as well as autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. Leaky gut is associated with the protein lectin, which, like gluten, is found in wheat (especially wheat germ), rye, and barley, as well as oats, corn and rice.

What You Can Eat

Although all of these gastrointestinal issues have been associated with the protein components of wheat and other grains, it is still not crystal clear whether any of the non-celiac conditions are actually caused by gluten or lectin, or by other substances found in grains. Researchers are still trying to figure that out.

Meanwhile, if you’re plagued with chronic stomach and intestinal issues, you’re probably less concerned with which part of the grain is causing your problem and more concerned with knowing what you can and cannot eat. To best answer that question, it helps to know exactly what’s wrong with your health. If you don’t, it’s best to avoid any potential offenders until you get a clear diagnosis.

The following alternative grains and “pseudo-grains,” which are actually seeds that are used like grains, can be substituted in different ways for many of the more common grains that are known to cause digestive problems. All of these can be found in health foods stores and many large supermarkets, in the form of whole-grains and flours, and they also used in commercial gluten-free products. Overall, they provide most of the same nutrients found in the more common grains.

  • Amaranth is a “pseudo-grain” that is popular in Latin America, South America and India, where it is often used to make hot cereal. Cooked amaranth retains some of its crunch so it can also be sprinkled over soups and salads for added texture. Amaranth flour is used to make breads, cookies, crackers, muffins and pancakes.
  • Buckwheat is not a type of wheat, but a small, pyramid-shaped seed Buckwheat seeds, known as kasha, or roasted buckwheat groats, are used to make pilafs, salads, and noodle dishes. Buckwheat flour is often used to make pancakes, muffins, crepes, and blinis.
  • Millet is a small, pale yellow grain used to make hot and cold cereals and pilafs or other dishes normally made with rice or cracked wheat. Millet flour is used to make bread, cakes, cookies, and other baked goods.
  • Oats are naturally gluten-free but are often grown or processed alongside wheat or other grains where they are cross-contaminated with gluten. It is now possible to buy a wide variety of oats labeled “gluten-free,” which have not been contaminated by other grains. Use these oats as you would any other oats, as hot cereal or in baking.
  • Quinoa is another “pseudo grain” from South America that can be substituted for rice or bulgar (cracked wheat) in pilafs, grain salads and side dishes. Quinoa flakes are used to make an instant hot cereal and quinoa flour is used to make all kinds of baked goods.
  • Sorghum flour is used in place of wheat flour and in combination with other alternative flour to make bread, cookies, pie crust, pancakes and other baked products. It is also used to make homemade noodles. In whole-grain form, sometimes called milo, sorghum can be used in salads and casserole dishes.
  • Teff is an ancient Ethiopian grain that is now produced in the United States. Tiny and seed-like, teff comes in pale ivory or darker brown color. The paler grain is milder and less earthy in flavor. Teff grain is used to make a porridge cereal or a polenta-like base for sauces and stews. Teff flour is used to make pancakes, waffles, breads and other baked goods.

If you have celiac disease or any chronic gastrointestinal problems, or you don’t normally eat a lot of grain fiber, try these alternative grains in small amounts before you make them a regular part of your diet. Adding new or additional fiber to your diet too quickly can cause bloating, gas and other types of gastrointestinal distress.

For more information, tips, ideas, and recipes for using alternative and common grains, check out Oldways Whole Grain Council.

 

Updated on: 10/24/17
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