The gluten-like problem lurking in oats

For some people, the fiber in oats may help with heart health. But for others, oats may trigger a cascade of illness.

The difficulties stem from a group of proteins in oats called avenins. These proteins are similar to gluten and have long been suspected of causing damaging immune responses in people with celiac who have autoimmune reactions to gluten.

And now Australian researchers have discovered, in fact, that if you have celiac disease and your immune system attacks your body when you eat foods made from wheat, barley and rye that contain gluten, you run a risk of also reacting to oats.

The ten year study indicates that about 8 percent of celiacs probably have a response to oats as well.

“The significance of previous studies performed in test tubes was unclear,” says researcher Melinda Hardy, who is with Australia’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. “By studying people with celiac disease who had eaten oats, we were able to undertake a detailed profile of the resultant immune response in their blood stream. Our study was able to establish the parts of oat avenins that cause an immune response in people with celiac disease.”

The fact that oats may cause reactions in people sensitive to gluten is a serious issue. Many packaged foods in the U.S. marked “gluten-free” are made with oats. So, even if the oats in the food are certified gluten-free, the avenins in those foods can still be a problem. (In Australia, oats are already forbidden on a gluten-free diet.)

If you suffer from celiac, gluten can cause a wide range of illnesses including nervous system problems, cognitive difficulties, destruction of your digestive tract, osteoporosis, iron deficiency and skin rashes. It is estimated that about one percent of all Americans have celiac but of those people, only about 17 percent are aware of their illness.

I only discovered I had celiac in 2006 when I was suffering from nervous system difficulties and memory issues. Since going on a gluten-free diet, I have always avoided oats just as an extra precaution. I’ve known that oats that are not labeled “gluten-free” are almost always cross-contaminated with wheat. But now there’s another good reason to avoid this grain altogether.

Fortunately, there are some really excellent foods that can substitute for grains. A good example is nuts and seeds. Anything I eat where the recipe calls for breading, I generally replace it with seeds.

You can crush up roasted pumpkin seeds (also called pepitas) or sesame seeds and they’ll substitute as a coating on fish and other meat. Also, pine nuts and almonds taste much better to me in a salad than croutons do. And unlike breads, nuts and seeds are full of nutrients and healthy oils.

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Carl Lowe

By Carl Lowe

has written about health, fitness and nutrition for a wide range of publications including Prevention Magazine, Self Magazine and Time-Life Books. The author of more than a dozen books, he has been gluten-free since 2007.