Oats and Gluten-Intolerance: It’s Complicated

Sigh.  You know when you really want a relationship to work and you spend so much time trying to get it to work?  And then you finally realize, “he’s just not that into you”?  That’s me and Oats.  I cannot tell you how much I wanted Oats to like me.  Truly.  It’s been years since I’ve been truly wooing Oats and to no avail.  It’s a bummer.  I hung out with Oats as a kid (In his guise of Instant Oats packets), I sometimes hung out with Oats as a non-gluten-free adult, and I’ve tried to hang out with gluten-free Oats as a diagnosed gluten-free adult.

And you know what?  Oats never worked out for me.  It’s been such a long and hard road for me and Oats.  Oats is his own man.  He likes who he likes.  And I jealously watch as he gets along with others of my type (gluten-free folks), and I get sad.  We talk, we argue, we make up, we try.  But no matter what, we don’t work together.  It’s not either of our faults.  Oats is just being himself.  I am just being myself.  And, as it turns out, we just don’t work together, Oats and I.

Oats hangs out with some of my other gluten-free friends.  They say he works really well in their recipes.  I tried so hard to get him to work for MY recipes.  But, it wasn’t meant to be.  We don’t work together.  I am anguished.  Oats still gets invited to gluten-free parties.  We meet at some of these.  We say an awkward, “hi,” and leave it at that.  Friends are confused.  “I thought you guys liked each other?” they say.  I say, “it’s awkward.”  I tell them, “he and I, well, we just can’t be together.  It’s complicated.”  My friends don’t understand.  So many of my gluten-free friends like Oats.  Why can’t I just like Oats?  Why am I being so difficult?

If you are gluten-intolerant, oats may be bad for you, too.  If you sometimes eat gluten-free oats and you feel bad, and you wonder, “hm, what did I eat that made me feel bad?” it could be oats.  It turns out that even though oats (the gluten-free ones) don’t have gluten, they do have proteins that might behave the same way as gluten on the body of sensitive individuals.  I spent so much time (years) trying to eat oats, but they always made me sick–and I never understood what was going on.  Then I read this article and ones like it, and it all made sense.  Read it for yourself and see if it might be you.

It turns out that folks who are sensitive like I am to the prolamine gliadin, which is found in wheat gluten, are also often senstitive to the prolamine in oats called avenin.  As it turns out, just as there is gluten-sensitive enteropathy (celiac disease), there is also avenin-sensitive enteropathy, which is a sensitivity to the gluten-like substance in oats.  Sigh.  What this means is that many of us gluten-intolerant folks are actually intolerant to oats themselves, not to them being cross-contaminated with wheat.  This is an area that hasn’t really been studied all that much.  But, the toxicity of oats for gluten intolerant individuals is recognized by certain countries, including Australia.

Now, I’m not a medical doctor.  And you shouldn’t listen to me without listening to your own body and speaking with your doctor.  But, it’s food for thought for those of us who are gluten-intolerant.


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    • says

      Veronica: I agree that soaking oats is nice to do–if you tolerate oats. If you react to the prolamine in oats, then no amount of soaking will help.

  1. tep says

    I love oats, or now , loved them. Within 10 minutes of eating them i get the symptons, but my wife in her knowing wisdom, knew that it was the oats, even through for a decade i denied and defended them. Now, reading back, historically, it seems that people did not eat oats with the all embracing eagergness that ‘gluten free marketing’ and healthy diet media would have us do now. To quote: “eaten by people in Scotland, but fit only for horses in England” Samuel johnson. I suspect that this wasn’t purely a snobbery on the part of the english. That, for some, oats are a difficult and awkward grain to digest, or avenin allergy; eroding the gut lining. There is a post war obsession with eating grains – pushing a low value crop that with minimal processing ends up on the shelves as a high value item. Makes it difficult to discern what is the right thing to eat, but as always it seems that the ‘right’ thing is the food that is hard won through research and self testing, or even through eclectic browsing; a little of this and a little of that. It just makes things real difficult when socialising and makes things expensive when shopping.

  2. Cynthia says

    I am not a diagnosed celiac and can tolerate wheat pretty well but oats simply do me in. So glad to know I am not the only one out here. And my favorite cookie in the world???? You would know it is an oatmeal raisin cookie!

      • Cynthia says

        Yes Jeanne it is. I have been told to eat oats to lower my cholesterol and I do really love a good bowl of hot oatmeal – but it definitely does NOT like me!

    • says

      I’m allergic to oats too, and was diagnosed with that allergy back in 2009, and like you, have had a love/hate relationship with them for many years. Being coeliac, they were my breakfast option until gf cereals started to arrive on the shelves, and I was eating the organic “safe” oats.

      In my early 20’s I was told I had rheumatoid arthritis, stripped oats out of my diet at 43 after an RA test came back negative and it’s never come back to haunt me… if only I’d known all those years earlier when I was encourage to eat oats more as they were “good for your liver”.

    • Jill says

      My son has an oat allergy as well as a spinach one. The two biggest things we used to eat in our house. Since finding out and having to look for out for oat products I have been amazed how many unexpected things have oat products in them. Skin care products, most bake goods are mixed with oat flour, and most breakfast cereals. Then you go and pay way more for something that is supposed to be oat free just to find out it is mixed oat and wheat flour. Because it is not a common allergy everyone seems to cook with them and every no bake recipe seems to call for them. The joys of being a hyper vigilant parent because face and neck swelling is super scary. Now if I could find good substitutes for oats I would be happy.

      • says

        Jill: I so know your pain! It really is frustrating. I have had success with raw quinoa flakes (the raw flakes, not the cooked flakes that are like cornflakes). Ancient Harvest makes them. They are smaller than oat flakes, but they work well. And I use them in cookies–in fact, I have a “Quinoa Flake Cookie” recipe in my new book (Gluten-Free Wish List) that is currently available for pre-order (see the link to the right).

  3. Teresa says

    I have been trying to figure out why oats affect me the way they do. I don’t have celiac, and I seem to tolerate wheat easier than I do oats. Ate them as a child just fine. I feel the same – tried them over and over and always same result. Had to end the relationship also.

  4. nafees says

    I write this as I laid up in bed. Was diagnosed with coeliac last July. I’ve had it tough (self pity) because I was having an on/off relationship in becoming gluten free. In December I collapsed and had a seizure at work. Had a CT which showed cysts on the brain. The seizures continued but when I had an MRI it was all clear thus the neurologist diagnosed me with psychogenic non epileptic seizures. During the 3 months I had off work I looked for alternative treatments as the anti epileptic drugs made me gain over 2 stones in 8 weeks. I had some acupuncture treatment. It was amazing. The acupuncturist looked at what foods I was having and suggested that the seizures may be related to contamination. I haven’t had a seizure for almost 3 months now. However this past week I have been indulging with different foods using gluten free oats. But by heck, I feel rough and today is the worst. Brain fog, disorientation and diarrhoea. And that’s when I Googled whether gluten free oats are really gluten free. Came across your article. What a fab read and unfortunately my love for oats as with everything else must now cone to an end :(

  5. Omar Marjan says

    This is Hell for me, First the wheat now the Oats or specifically Maize that absolutely Kills me.

    It starts off with the itchtness then the brain fog and then the drowsiness.

    Nearlly all gluten free products such as bread alternatives ect all contain oats. Im dissapearing with there being nothing to eat that is gluten free oats free and diary free.

    did I mention I cannot eat cocoa beans neither. Any advice? :(

    Great article!

  6. says

    My reaction to this post? Go make a bowl of instant GF oatmeal and see how I feel later today. And…hope like made I don’t react to them. I am not a classy eater. In fact, meatloaf is one of my very favorite meals, and until I tried oatmeal instead of crushed saltines, I was afraid I’d have to kiss it goodbye forever. If I have to give it up, I guess it’s back to the drawing board. :/

    • says

      Kristy: If you do react to oats, check out quinoa flakes. I’ve been playing with them this past year and they are a decent substituted. Tinier than oats and a bit of a different taste, but good. I order Ancient Harvest ones from Amazon.

  7. Norris says

    Jeanne, not only did you help me make sense of my “on again, off again” affair with oats, you did it in a very entertaining, wonderfully written way. Thanks.

  8. polishko says

    I’m almost gluten-free for 6-7 months now. I say almost, since I haven’t stopped eating out in a restaurant, though I am careful about the ingredients in the food I order, I surely cannot do anything about contamination. And I eat out at least once per week. Though not completely gluten free, my symptoms have improved grately. I am less often constipated, have no bloating and acid reflux, can get a better sleep, feel more energised, have improved menstrual period symptoms (less pain), have improvement in my memory skills. I didn’t go through any testing, especially genetic testing is not available in my country, but I have read that while celiac disease can be diagnosed by genetic testing, gluten sensitivity may not be. Nevertheless I don’t beleive I am celiac (yet), it seems that I can tolerate some gluten. For instance I eat stuf made from oats flour (non-GF, since these are also not available in my country) once in two months maybe, and I am ok with one or two cookies for example. But then if I overeat, I suddenly get constipated. I don’t get the bloating and acid reflux that I get with wheat, but still they are enogh to cause a disturbance. I have also realized that sometimes a specific type of food containing gluten (e.g. a soup eaten in a restaurant, containing tiny amounts of flour to make it thicken) does not cause a problem, while another time it triggers all the indigestion, bloating and acid reflux symptoms. I wonder if there is a critical concentration of gluten for me that causes the effect or is it a combination of gluten and something else. I have also found that gluten and alcohol consumed together, or strong alcoholic drinks containing gluten worsens everything fourfold for me.

    • says

      Polishko: Yes, it is confusing. I also react to a lot of things and am not sure whey I react to them some days and not others. I am thinking there is an inflammation question here. For me, the more things I eat that cause me to have inflammation, the more the inflammation builds up and the more I react to everything. I have found that alcohol is a major inflammatory for me–if I have a glass of wine with dinner a few nights in a row, I don’t feel well and I don’t react well to other foods. Sigh. It’s so confusing and hard to keep up with the intricacies of how everything works in our sensitive bodies.

  9. Jo says

    OK. I have spent the past few days wondering why I feel so dreadful – and wracking my brains as to whether I had let slip a speck of wheat. But a few days ago I discovered gluten free oats and have been loving my bowls of Porridge for breakfast. Now I remember feeling similar after gf oatcakes and cutting them out a year or two ago, but I wasn’t convinced it was them, as everyone seems to say gt oats are fine, and then I forgot. Bugger. I love porridge. But it is good to see that oat intolerance is a possibility and I am not just paranoid.

  10. monai says

    Your medical doctor doesnt have clue about nutrition. The have only been trained on drug and how to manage symtoms.
    They shouldnt even advised patients about nutrition because tjey habent been trained on that, so they wont have the right information. The only person you need to ask are nutrition therapist or the naturopathic doctor.

  11. Kathy says

    My son, sister and niece are all gluten and dairy intolerant. Their symptoms are bloating and abdominal pain. My sister is the most severe. The mystery is that they are now gradually becoming more and more sensitive to other foods that they were not previously sensitive to such as oats, corn, soy, pumpkin, kale, butternut squash, peanut butter, and peanuts. Has anyone else had similar problems?

    • says

      Kathy: unfortunately, it is very common for those of us with one food intolerance to develop more. I know I have many. Sigh. Some of the things you’ve listed are in the top allergens: corn, soy, peanuts. Kale is in the brassica family and brassicas can be hard on folks with digestive issues. All I can say to them is to hang in there and concentrate on the things that they CAN eat.

    • Lee says

      Hi Kathy,
      the increase in digestive problems is most likely due to a damaged gut lining and imbalanced gut flora, initially caused by gluten and various toxins. The solution is to heal the gut by incorporating nutritious, non-inflammatory foods such as fermented foods and bone broth. Many people find after following a gut-healing diet for several months, they can add many other foods back in with no problems :)

  12. Jo says

    Does anyone else get a burning (not heart burn, like the whole lining of the stomach) feeling in their stomach after eating oats? I have been gluten-free for almost 2 years (self diagnosed, my doctor suggested the elimination diet because he doesn’t believe blood tests work). I feel better, no bloating or joint pain, my eczema is under control, but I’m finding more allergies as I go :(. I am VERY allergic to millet (almost went to the hospital, I looked like I got hit in the face with a baseball bat), I have cut dairy back, and now I feel like this story. I ate wheat and oats my whole life (I’m 33) but have always had sinus issues, digestive troubles, and fought depression. I no longer have depression issues, my sinus troubles are mostly gone (except normal seasonal allergies), and my digestive issues are better… Until I eat oatmeal. I even tried gluten-free with flax seeds (I know I am okay with flax seeds), to no avail. I just bought some quinoa flakes, I hope it is a great hot breakfast .

    • says

      Jo: I don’t get a burning but I get a stomach ache when I eat oats. Also, the older we get the more allergies we allergic-types seem to get. Sigh.

  13. elise says

    I ‘ve had to cut out gluten free oats and I did like ground flaxseeds with them, but I dont know whether I could be intolerant to both, anyone out there got any idea?I’m like Jess-many hospital tests over 2 years for the docs to tell me nothing wrong with me-I’m too scared to eat sometimes

    • says

      Elise: You could be reacting to flax seeds. I don’t do will with flax seeds because they are pretty hard on my digestive system. They are a strong laxative and I don’t need anymore of that. Also, be aware the flax seeds go rancid fairly quickly–especially once they are ground. They should always be stored in the fridge or freezer. You might want to be sure you’re not eating rancid flax seeds–they will taste very bitter–before you determine that you don’t do well with flax seeds.

  14. Jenna says

    Do any of you have the same symptoms when eating corn products? Apparently corn contains avenin too :(
    What the hell am I meant to eat for breakfast if I can’t have oats??????????

    • says

      Jenna: As far as I know, the prolamin in corn is zein (and not avenin). That said, I would monitor how you feel when you eat corn. It’s one of the top 8 allergens and if it’s not organic, the corn products we have in the US are made from GMO corn (which is bad news). My daughter has tested sensitive to corn, so we have it very rarely. That said, I understand your frustration. It’s really hard to not be able to tolerate such common things. Sigh. You might want to try quinoa flakes in the place of oats and see how you like them.

      • Jerome Parness says

        FYI, there is no scientific evidence that GMO anything is bad for you. This is a philosophical argument, not a scientific one, irrespective of the press it has gotten from “green” groups and the acquiescence of the governement to the political pressure it has engendered. Again, there is no scientific evidence that any GMO crop is bad for you. If anyone says there is, let them post the SCIENTIFIC reference for critical evaluation, not political bloviation. Therefore, GMO corn is not known to be bad for you, and you can eat it if you have gluten intolerance and are not allergic to corn.

  15. Tara says

    Ahh…this could explain some things. I recently removed wheat from my diet (for reasons unrelated to wheat sensitivity) and suddenly discovered that my body felt much better without it! I kept it out for a few days and then went out with some friends and had wheat products and within a day or two the gut felt heavy (for lack of a better way to describe it) and my muscles felt bloated. So I’ve been exploring the gluten-free world and seeing what I like and don’t like, and have been making my own granola for breakfast (I can’t stand the taste and texture of oatmeal). But since I’ve been eating it I’ve been noticing the constipation coming back and general heavy feeling in the gut, though the muscles feel ok. Perhaps oats are no good for me as well?…which would be quite sad, because I really like the granola…

  16. Michelle says

    I don’t have celiac or allergies but I’ve noticed when I eat oatmeal I feel hazy. I stopped adding milk and cinnamon a they are natural sedatives when served hot. But still happening with the oats. Hmmm

  17. Another Sharon says

    Well, I am glad I found this page. I was recently diagnosed with celiac and doing everything gluten free. Over the last couple of weeks I have tried 3 different brands of gluten free granola cereals, always followed by a tummy ache. Me scratching my head trying to think of what I could’ve eaten that would be contaminated. Today, after a new granola cereal, and another tummy ache, and thinking what the 3 brands have in common, oats were it. So here I am trolling the net to see if I was bonkers, and I guess I am not. How sad, because, oatmeal chocolate chips cookies have been a favorite of mine. Thanks to all of you for sharing your stories, to know I am not alone in this.

    • says

      (Another) Sharon: I’m glad to be of help–although I know what a drag it is to not be able to eat oats. Hang in there! Also, there is a product that can be substituted for oats–quinoa flakes. I used them years and years ago–I need to find them again and do some experimenting.

  18. sharon says

    many sites and researchers indicate theie belief that many persons may have an intolerance to most all grains as they contain lectins that cause problems in the intestinal tract. http://www.marksdailyapple.com/lectins/#axzz29xWUYaBf
    this may be more theory than science, but there are many individuals who do seem to be better off avoiding most grains.
    easier said than done? for sure!

    • admin says

      Sharon: Yes, true about grains in general. But oats are in a particular category by themselves because of the prolamine avenin. The avenin is very close in structure to the prolamine in gluten–which makes is especially tough for many people who are gluten intolerant.

  19. Asia says

    I was sooo excited a few years ago when the market introduced “gluten free oats”. I bought some and baked some cookies. Mmm, they were amazing! …and then I immediately got really sick.

    Since then I’ve had a few unfortunate experiences where I’ve had a “gluten free” treat and gotten really sick, and then I’m informed that they had pure oats in them. I have other family members that are Celiac and they also can not have pure oats.

    In the city I live in there is a gluten free bakery that uses pure oats in a lot of their baked goods. It really bugs me because I’m obviously not alone—I’m not the only Celiac that can’t have pure oats.

    • admin says

      Asia: Yeah, I think many of us get sick on oats–but all of the information out there about “gluten-free” oats makes it hard to pinpoint that it is the oats that are making us sick. Sigh.

  20. Betty says

    I am so glad I found this. Now I know why my bloated abdomen, phlebitis in my lower legs, joint pains, grogginess and sleeplessness reappear when I eat oats and/or buckwheat. My GP thinks I am a hypochondriac internet nut, and that there is nothing wrong with me, but someone forgot to tell my body it is all make-believe. I even run a temperature after I eat that stuff, and the redness and swelling in my legs is not funny. Oh well. There are still so may things I CAN eat, and thoroughly enjoy. I’m off to experiment with sticky rice rolls made of brown rice, palm sugar and cold pressed virgin coconut oil! And those lentil salads are delish – as well as bean curries or homemade Thai pea soup in my favourite mug!

  21. Marcia says

    I’m one who’s just happy to finally have a formal name for why my Dad and I avoid oats. In my attempts at research I began to wonder if it was unique between us as there was generally no information other than how oats get tainted with gluten in processing plants. I’ve generally been fine with wheat, but that bowl of oatmeal I had in college had me in pain for three days straight (I initially thought appendicitis until I told my dad). I miss them though. Everyone wants to be slightly healthy and they bring in oat stuff, and I run the other direction. Usually I say I’m allergic, or oat intolerant when I have time.

  22. Jess says

    I can understand what you’re going through. I’ve been through so many tests because the doctors thought I had a gluten-intolerance. However, I have no problem eating wheat but get the same horrible digestive problems when I eat oats. It’s extremely frustrating because all the doctors tell me I’m not gluten-sensitive so I shouldn’t have problems with oats, but alas my body tells me otherwise. I just hope my oat-intolerance doesn’t create a gluten-intolerance in the future.

    • admin says

      Jess: I have to say, I don’t know anything about how the two intolerances are connected. But, yes–I agree–it would be great if you didn’t develop a gluten-intolerance!

  23. Julia says

    I am learning quite a bit about my years of difficulty with oats. I have no problem with wheat, but oats always make me react like you guys react to gluten. It is hard to get people to take me seriously because the separate reaction to oats is just now being understood.

  24. says

    I, too have the same problems with oats. I’m also intolerant to gluten and oats, as well as buckwheat. Buckwheat also gets invited to gluten-free parties, but we do not get along. It’s sad, really, because I love oatmeal, oatmeal cookies, everything oat. And buckwheat-yummy buckwheat pancakes, and all those gluten-free cookies made with buckwheat, too. Oh, well. Life goes on and you get creative.

    • admin says

      Nikki: you know, one of my other readers was talking about not tolerating buckwheat. She and I thought it was because she couldn’t find gf buckwheat (i.e., not potentially cross contaminated). Hm. Now I’m wondering about buckwheat. Although it is a seed and not a grain. Interesting.

  25. Noor says

    I always thought I must be doing something wrong. For years I used to have awful tummy aches and washroom problems, but chalked it off to cross contamination. For the past six months I’ve tried to reintroduce GF oats into my diet, and have failed miserably. Ah, to enjoy a nice bowl of oats in the morning again, alas the pain and suffering is not worth it in the end.

  26. Becca Knox says

    Ah, Oats, he is a fickle lover. I have done the same dance with him. Overjoyed to be able to invite him back into my life, I cried with nostalgia and delight the day I made mazurkas again after a dozen years or more without. I reveled in his creamy steel-cut goodness for breakfast. I made the best apple-cranberry crisps ever. And yet, I was betrayed. Guts wrenchedand mind foggy, I had to admit Oats and I are not compatible and again he is banished from my kitchen. I share your disappointment, Jeanne. Sigh.


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