Celiac Disease

The difference between celiac disease and gluten intolerance

Written by

Lauren Dobischok
28 March, 2022

Medically checked article All HOMED-IQ content is reviewed by medical specialists

Have you ever had unpleasant symptoms or felt bloated after eating gluten-rich foods like bread, muesli or pasta, and wondered if you have gluten intolerance or possibly even celiac disease? Although these two conditions share similar symptoms, there are distinct differences in how they work. Over the past few years, a gluten-free diet has gained popularity. However, many people have no clear idea of the difference between celiac disease and gluten intolerance and why some people need to live gluten-free.

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive system. When a person with celiac disease eats food containing gluten, an immune response is triggered in the small intestine (NHS, 2022). Over time, this reaction damages the small intestine.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive system. When a person with celiac disease consumes foods containing gluten, an immune response is triggered in the small intestine. Gluten is a protein found mainly in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. It gives baked goods like bread and cake their elastic and fluffy texture. In cooking, gluten also helps to stabilize doughs and firm up their structure. The immune response triggered by gluten mistakenly targets the body’s own intestinal cells instead of harmful invaders. Over time, this ongoing inflammatory response leads to damage to the intestinal villi. Due to the damage to the small intestine, malabsorption can occur, leading to deficiencies in nutrients. Vitamins and minerals commonly affected include iron, calcium, vitamin D, folic acid, and vitamin B12 (NHS, 2022).

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Symptoms of celiac disease

The autoimmune response related to celiac disease damages the small intestine’s capability of absorbing and processing nutrients from food. This damage can cause malnutrition and a range of other physical symptoms, including brain fog, tingling in the hands or feet, chronic fatigue, bone or joint pain, and changes in mood. Further symptoms are:

  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Bloating and gas
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting

Source: NHS, 2022

What is gluten intolerance?

Gluten intolerance is also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and causes similar symptoms to celiac disease despite not being an autoimmune condition (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). When a person with celiac disease eats products that contain gluten, their immune system attacks their intestines, causing damage to body tissues that cause unpleasant symptoms . Someone that is gluten intolerant, on the other hand, may experience bloating, nausea, stomach pain, and diarrhea without any autoimmune reaction or lasting damage to the intestine occurring. Therefore gluten intolerance does not cause long-term harm to the body, unlike celiac disease. 

Symptoms of gluten intolerance

Similar to someone suffering from celiac disease, typical symptoms of gluten intolerance are:

  • Stomach ache
  • Gas
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Fatigue

Source: Cleveland Clinic, 2021

If you experience any of these symptoms after eating products containing gluten, there might be a chance that you are gluten intolerant. Individuals suffering from gluten intolerance may find comfort by using digestive enzymes, lowering the amount of gluten in their diet, or completely removing gluten from their diet.

Is gluten intolerance the same as gluten sensitivity?

The terms gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity are frequently used interchangeably. While neither term is completely defined in the medical world, many people believe gluten sensitivity is a less severe variant of gluten intolerance. Gluten sensitivity, for example, might be determined if someone has modest symptoms prompted by gluten ingestion that go away quickly. Someone who has significant symptoms that linger for a long time, on the other hand, is likely to be diagnosed with gluten intolerance.

The difference between gluten intolerance and celiac disease

The main difference between gluten intolerance and celiac disease is the long-term damage that celiac disease can cause to the body. While sharing almost the same symptoms following eating food that contains gluten, gluten sensitivity and gluten intolerance do not cause damage to the intestines, unlike celiac disease (Cleveland Clinic, 2022).

Is it possible to be gluten intolerant and not have celiac disease?

Yes, many people with symptoms that are similar to celiac disease test negative for celiac disease. In this case, a gluten-free diet can help them feel better and minimize discomfort. These people most likely have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity. 

I have celiac disease- what should I do? 

People that have celiac disease should adhere to a lifelong gluten-free diet. Learning to recognize products that contain gluten is the first step in this lifestyle change. The next step is to slowly introduce gluten-free foods into your diet. The easiest method to tell if anything is gluten-free is to look for the “gluten-free” label on the package. Another technique to detect gluten-containing items is to look at the allergen warning on the food label; if it mentions wheat, the product is likely to contain gluten as well. However, there are gluten-containing components that do not contain wheat, so be cautious when purchasing goods that aren’t labeled “gluten-free.”


Celiac Disease vs. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity vs. Food Allergy. (2022, August 31). Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/gluten-sensitivity-celiac-disease-wheat-allergy-differences/

Gluten Intolerance: Symptoms, Test, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. (2021, June 30). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/21622-gluten-intolerance

NHS website. (2022, May 19). Coeliac disease. nhs.uk. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coeliac-disease/

About the author

Lauren Dobischok

Lauren is a health scientist and science communicator currently living in the Netherlands. Originally from Canada, she completed a Research Master’s in Health Sciences at the Netherlands Institute of Health Sciences at Erasmus University Rotterdam (NIHES) with a specialisation in epidemiology. Prior to her master’s degree, she completed a Bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. With a background in public health, her goal is to create accurate scientific content that is easy to understand and empowers people to make informed decisions. Within Homed-IQ, Lauren works as a Product Developer and Content Lead, working closely with physicians and scientists on medical devices for Homed-IQ’s new products and written communications.