By Maite Sancho, S.S. and Joseph Gonzales, R.D., L.D.
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Celiac disease, also referred to as gluten intolerance, is an inherited condition that affects the small intestine. It's an auto-immune disorder, meaning the body attacks its own healthy cells in the intestine when a certain protein is eaten. The protein to blame is gluten, which is predominantly found in wheat, barley and rye. For most people gluten is a healthy protein, but it can be a serious problem for those with celiac disease. The small intestine is responsible for absorbing the majority of nutrients from the diet, which is why undiagnosed celiac disease can be a serious problem. It can lead to severe malnutrition, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and anemia.
Sometimes individuals may not have celiac disease, but can develop sensitivity to gluten. Gluten sensitivities can be managed by a gluten-free diet. However, it is really important to point out that if you suspect you are sensitive to gluten, see your doctor before going on a gluten-free diet. Sensitivities are caused by eating too much gluten which is a staple grain in many cultures' diets. This does not necessarily mean you have to avoid it forever, but choosing grains like rice, quinoa, and others are viable options and can help lessen the effects of being sensitive to gluten.
Having a mother or father with the sensitivity increases the chances of children having celiac disease. The most important action is to get a proper diagnosis from your doctor because some of the most common symptoms are not exclusive to celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Here are a few examples of symptoms to keep in mind: diarrhea, unexpected weight loss, vomiting, anemia, abdominal pain and distention, fatigue, joint pain, foggy mind, tingling of the extremities, and irritably. Having celiac disease is a condition that some people have to deal with, but it's an easy job! Supermarkets are flooded with gluten-free options these days and many foods in nature are void of gluten.
Most food companies label their products 'gluten-free', so look for these labels when shopping for packaged goods. Reading ingredients is also needed because some are hidden and may not mention the word 'wheat' or 'gluten.' Avoid these gluten-containing ingredients: bulgur, couscous, dinkle, durum, einkorn, emmer, farina, fu, graham, seitan, and semolina. Also, make sure to avoid whole grains that contain gluten such as: wheat berries, barley, kamut, spelt berries, and rye.
This may seem daunting at first, but once you identify the safe foods you don't need to investigate labels as much. Luckily there is life beyond gluten and so many options to choose from. These grains are all gluten-free and safe to consume:
- Oats (gluten-free)
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- Celiac Disease Facts and Figures. The University of Chicago. Celiac Disease Center. Available at: http://www.uchospitals.edu/pdf/uch_007937.pdf. Accessed April 16, 2013.
- Wall Street Journal. Clues to Gluten Sensitivity. Available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704893604576200393522456636.html. Accessed April 18, 2013.
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- Pietzak M. Celiac disease, wheat allergy, and gluten sensitivity: when gluten free is not a fad. JPEN J Parenter Enteral Nutr. 2012;36:68S-75S.
- Celiac Sprue Association. Reading labels. Available at: http://www.csaceliacs.info. Accessed April 15, 2013.