By now, you’ve likely heard about people going gluten-free, ridding their diets of foods such as pastas, breads, cereals, and processed foods that contain rye, wheat and barley. And while that may sound like another trendy, “lose weight fast” diet, for some it’s an absolute necessity. Approximately 3 million Americans – roughly 1 percent of the population – have celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disease triggered by ingesting gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. For people with celiac disease, eating gluten can cause damage to the lining of the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients. In the last few decades, there has been a marked increase in the prevalence of celiac disease, but the cause is not entirely known. An additional 6 percent of the population also have a form of “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” but do not actually have celiac disease.
Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman says the signs and symptoms of celiac disease include diarrhea, abdominal bloating, weight loss, growth failure, anemia, constipation, abdominal pain, rash, fatigue, headaches and nutritional deficiencies. However, Tillman says, it’s possible to have celiac disease and experience none of these symptoms. “What’s also concerning about celiac disease are its ties to other diseases,” Tillman said. “Some connection seems to exist between celiac disease and other autoimmune conditions, such as type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease, autoimmune liver disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Addison’s disease and Sjogren’s syndrome,” she added. “Celiac disease is diagnosed in two steps. The first is a blood test that looks for certain gluten auto-antibodies. The second is a biopsy of the small intestine to check for signs of damage. During these tests, it’s important for the patient to continue to consume foods containing gluten,” Tillman explained.
“If celiac disease is diagnosed, the only treatment available is a lifelong gluten-free diet,” Tillman said. “Education from a dietitian is invaluable to someone who is newly diagnosed. For most people, simply following a strict gluten-free diet will improve some symptoms within a few days. The small intestine usually heals in three to six months for children, but can take up to a few years to heal fully in adults. Once healed, the small intestine will be able to properly absorb nutrients from food into the bloodstream,” she explained. “To continue to stay well, people with celiac disease must avoid gluten for the rest of their lives or risk further damage to the small intestine,” she added.
There are some suitable alternatives to foods that contain gluten for people who have celiac disease. “People with celiac disease can eat a well-balanced diet with a variety of foods,” Tillman said. “They can use rice, potato, soy and buckwheat flour instead of wheat flour. There also are a variety of gluten-free breads, pastas, crackers and cereals on the market right now. Of course, plain meat, eggs, fish, fruits and vegetables do not contain gluten and can be eaten freely. The things to watch are processed foods because they can contain hidden sources of gluten,” she explained. “This is why working with a diet professional is so important for someone who has celiac disease. With a little education and practice, they can learn to eat in a way that is balanced, healthy and simple,” she added.
If you’re concerned that you may have symptoms of celiac disease, or if you have a family member who has been diagnosed, speak to your physician about whether you should get tested.