Gluten-free is still going strong. Every day it seems like there’s some new recipe to try, medical report to consider, or news item about to break the Internet.
Chains like Panera and Starbucks are testing out new product lines that are set to launch any day now. Students of beer (yes that’s a real degree) are researching the best compliant brews. A woman even sued a popular restaurant for tacking on a surcharge to her gluten-free meal. Who knew wheat could cause such hysteria?
The truth, though, is that gluten-free eating is not just a trendy diet to shed the pounds and look great in a swimsuit by summer. It originated as a medically necessary way of life for those with gluten sensitivities and the more serious Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that attacks the digestive system even when the tiniest trace amounts are eaten. In fact, a new report in the Journal of Pediatrics finds that giving up gluten is actually more harmful to non-Celiacs than good.
In honor of Celiac Disease Awareness Month, we take a closer look at the condition, its symptoms, and the treatments that can help create a better quality of life.
Defining Celiac disease
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, the condition is defined as “an autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically-predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine.”
Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in wheat, rye, and barley that acts as a kind of glue to hold food like bread and baked goods together. When people with Celiac disease eat these commonplace goodies, however, their body triggers an immune response that attacks the small intestine and damages the villi organisms in the interior lining of the gut that are responsible for nutrient absorption. With damaged villi, nutrients will not be absorbed properly in the body, which can lead to a whole host of health problems.
Foods that contain gluten
Unfortunately for those with Celiac disease, gluten is found in many of the popular foods that have become staples in the American diet, and are just plain enjoyable to eat. Some examples include:
- Pastas of all kinds, including spaghetti, ravioli, dumplings, and gnocchi
- Noodles, such as ramen udon, soba, chow mein, and egg noodles
- Breads and baked goods (croissants, pita, naan, bagels, flatbreads, cornbread, potato bread, muffins, donuts, rolls, cakes, cookies, pie crusts, and brownies)
- Crackers and pretzels
- Cereals and granolas, including some corn flakes and rice puffs that contain malt extract/flavoring and granola made with regular oats
- Breakfast favorites like pancakes, waffles, French toast, crepes, and biscuits
- Breading and batter commonly used with meats and vegetables
- Sauces and gravies that use wheat flour as a thickener
- Flour tortillas
- Beer and malt beverages
Those with Celiac disease will also need to regularly check labels for the following ingredients that are known carriers of gluten:
- Wheat and wheat flour
- Other varieties of wheat, like semolina, farro, and wheat berries
- Malt in all forms (malted barley flour, malted milk or milkshakes, malt extract, malt flavoring, and malt vinegar)
- Brewer’s yeast
Adhering to a gluten-free diet is no small task, and includes being stringent about making proper food choices and being choosier about restaurants, but thankfully there are a range of options that make substituting foods you love both easy and affordable.
Celiac disease symptoms
Celiac disease is often a hereditary condition, so if you have a family member who has been diagnosed, there is a greater probability you will also have it. In fact, people with a first-degree relative, such as a parent, sibling, or child, have a 1 in 10 chance.
If no one in your family has Celiac disease, you can still have it. Here are what some of the symptoms look like:
- Chronic diarrhea
- Stomach pain
- Nausea and vomiting
In children, there can also be developmental issues due to lack of nutrient absorption, which is common with Celiac disease. Some of the signs to look out for include:
- Failure to thrive in infants
- Slowed growth and smaller stature
- Weight loss
- Irritability or mood swings
- Delayed puberty
Adults also experience a wide range of separate issues that stem from malnutrition. These can include:
- Bone or joint pain
- Canker or cold sores
- Headaches or lightheadedness
- Itchy skin rashes
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Infertility or miscarriage
- Missed periods
- Tingling or numbness in appendages
- Weak, brittle bones and/or osteoporosis
It’s important to remember that Celiac disease affects everyone differently. Age alone can play a factor, but symptoms can also be dependent on how much damage has already been done to the small intestine. This could range from a slight upset stomach to more severe cases that include infertility or seizures.
Celiac disease testing
While it can be tempting to self-diagnose, the best course of action is to make an appointment with a doctor if you feel you could have Celiac disease. He or she will run one or more tests to make a diagnosis.
The first (and most routine) option is a blood test, which will look for the presence of antibodies. This allows the doctor to gauge your body’s response to gluten since antibodies normally indicate an allergic response.
If the tests are inconclusive, or there is a need for more specific testing, an endoscopy will likely be recommended. This involves a very thin tube with attached camera that travels through your mouth to your intestines and takes a closer look at the internal structure to identify any inflammation and possible damage, which can be dead giveaways of Celiac disease. A biopsy might also be taken. The procedure is brief (about 15 minutes) and relatively painless with sedation. It’s one of the best ways for your medical team to determine an official diagnosis.
A common mistake that some people make before testing is automatically switching to a gluten-free diet. While this will be a prescribed treatment if you do in fact have Celiac disease, jumping the gun could effectively alter test results and provide a false negative diagnosis.
If you’ve already chosen to go gluten-free and have yet to be tested, however, you can try a gluten challenge in order to get more accurate results. This requires eating a certain amount of gluten daily to build antibodies back up so that they show in pathology reports. Although, don’t try this without first checking with your doctor as he or she will need to monitor the process to ensure your safety.
A diagnosis (or not)
Even if your test results come back negative, gluten could still be to blame. Many people live with gluten sensitivity or a gluten intolerance, a less severe response that has many of the same symptoms as Celiac disease but does not damage the intestines. Currently, it is undetectable through testing.
On the other hand, test results may confirm suspicions and you might end up with a formal Celiac diagnosis. While this probably won’t come as good news, it can be a relief to know the source of health issues and get started on a treatment plan to get healthier.
Celiac disease treatment
The only real treatment for Celiac disease is the complete elimination of gluten from the diet—that means no cheat days or “I’m just going to try a bite.” Even the smallest amounts can trigger a reaction. It can be challenging at first, but there are a few useful tips that can make the transition easier:
- Build a support system. Managing Celiac disease doesn’t have to be something you do alone. Work with your doctors and a reputable dietitian or nutritionist who can provide guidance on how to shop, cook, and eat gluten-free long-term. It also can be helpful to find a support group (there’s a number of them online), and reach out to loved ones to help you through the life changes.
- Read labels. This might mean spending a little more time at the grocery store at first, scanning ingredient lists and examining packaging, but it will become more intuitive and help you in the long run to make healthier, more informed choices. You can also refer to the CSA Gluten-Free Product Listing for a handy roundup of commercial products that are gluten-free.
- Find good swaps. Eating gluten-free doesn’t mean you have to give up everything you love. There’s a ton of great tasting substitutes that let you still enjoy mac and cheese, pasta, pancakes, and cookies.
Though it may sound limiting, eating gluten-free actually offers a wide range of options that are both satisfying and fulfilling. All of these foods are naturally gluten-free and can be go-tos when grocery shopping or eating out:
- Nut-based flours
Switching up your diet can also provide the chance to get creative in the kitchen. Try these tasty gluten-free recipes that the whole family will love.
Photo credit: M & K Frey via Flickr, Paul Delmont, Alicia Cho
Illustration by Foley Wu
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