More and more gluten-free products are available on store shelves—and for good reason. Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that can lead to malnutrition, may affect more than 2 million Americans who have an abnormal reaction to gluten, a protein in certain grains.
There are many others who have allergies or sensitivities to gluten and wheat.
Going Gluten Free
Omit barley (including malt), rye, triticale (a cross between rye and wheat), and wheat in all types (durum, einkorn, emmer, kamut, semolina, and spelt) and forms (bran or germ, cracked or crushed, farina, graham flour, hydrolyzed wheat protein).
A number of processed foods can also contain gluten: bouillon cubes, brown rice syrup, candy, chips, cold cuts and other processed meats, Communion wafers, French fries, gravy, imitation bacon and fish, marinades, matzo, panko and other breadings, pasta, rice mixes, and packaged vegetables in sauce to name a few.
Some people who can’t tolerate this wheat protein may also have trouble digesting dairy.
Enjoy a wealth of foods: amaranth, buckwheat, corn, flax, legumes, millet, quinoa, rice (brown or white), sorghum, teff, wild rice (a grain unrelated to rice), and flours made from these foods. Substitute rice cakes for breads and crackers. Cook cream of rice or eggs for breakfast.
Eat lots of brightly-colored fruits and veggies. Besides providing needed vitamins and minerals, they’re high in fiber that supports healthy digestion.
Consume iron-rich poultry, eggs, seafood, and soy. The Food and Drug Administration permits voluntary labeling, so look for the gluten-free label.
Malabsorption is common for those with celiac disease and food allergies, so consider digestive enzymes. Several multivitamin-mineral formulas contain these helpful supplements.
Even after going gluten-free, some people may be low in calcium, folic acid, iron, and zinc, so consider supplements. Some research shows that B vitamins improve the health of celiac patients on gluten-free diets.
What’s Celiac Disease?
Symptoms vary greatly from individual to individual. Children may have abdominal bloating and pain, chronic diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, and weight loss.
Adults may also complain of arthritis, bone or joint pain, canker sores, depression, fatigue, infertility or recurrent miscarriages, itchy skin rash (dermatitis herpetiformis), missed menstrual periods, tingling numbness in their extremities, or unexplained iron-deficiency anemia.
Blood testing (for high levels of certain autoantibodies) and a biopsy of the small intestine (to check for damage to the villi, which are tiny, finger-like protrusions lining this part of the gastrointestinal tract) are needed to diagnose celiac disease. It’s very important though, NOT to avoid gluten before testing; otherwise, test results may be negative, even when disease is present.
Unfortunately, it can take years to diagnose celiac disease. This is partly because the symptoms resemble irritable bowel and other digestive disorders like lactose intolerance. Also, physicians are not trained to consider this condition.
Celiac disease not only causes malabsorption but also damages the small intestine. Absorption problems can lead to iron-deficient anemia and osteoporosis.
People with this disease tend to have other autoimmune conditions: Addison’s disease, autoimmune liver or thyroid diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome, or Type 1 diabetes. A recent French study suggests that celiac disease may be a potentially treatable cause of stroke, particularly in the young, even without gastrointestinal complaints.
The good news is that, although celiac disease is incurable, it can be treated with a gluten-free diet. In most cases avoiding gluten will heal the intestine.