Understanding celiac disease and gluten intolerance

The majority of people with celiac disease have not been diagnosed and are unaware that their physical condition may be linked to the food they eat.

With one in 133 Americans suffering from its effects, it seems like you can’t pick up a paper or magazine today without seeing an article about gluten or Celiac Disease. Is this a major problem or just another food fad? Even major grocery store chains are increasingly adding gluten-free foods to their market selections. So what is gluten? Gluten is the protein in wheat, barley and rye that gives the grain its elasticity. But for many Americans, gluten is a food substance causing life-long damaging nutritional deficits and symptoms resulting in a disease that can not be cured.

Celiac disease is an auto-immune disease. When adults or children with celiac eat gluten, the protein damages the villi in the small intestine causing a flattening of the villi. Villi are the finger like protrubences that absorb nutrients from the food we eat. With flattened villi, we lose the ability to absorb these nutrients leading to malnutrition affecting virtually every organ in the body.

Symptoms of gluten intolerance or celiac include:

  • Anemia
  • Skin problems (eczema/psoriasis)
  • Fatigue and/or memory loss
  • Digestive problems such as bloating, diarrhea or constipation

What should you do if you suspect that you have gluten intolerance? Try avoiding foods containing gluten for several weeks and see if your symptoms improve. Common foods containing gluten include:

  • Anything made from wheat, rye or barley including flours, bread, pasta, crackers, cereal and desserts
  • Processed meats including luncheon meat and imitation bacon
  • Breading mixes

Reading food labels will help you determine if a food contains gluten. But remember that “wheat free” does not mean gluten free as rye and barley also contain gluten. Some common ingredients containing gluten that you may not have thought of include:

  • Soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce
  • Spice and herb mixtures
  • Marinades and salad dressings

After a week or two, if symptoms are less severe you might conclude that you have an intolerance and continue eating this way for the rest of your life. You might also try reintroducing gluten and see if your symptoms return or worsen. But for a definitive diagnosis or if symptoms don’t improve, contact your physician for an appointment to get tested for Celiac disease. By becoming your own health advocate, you can learn to live a healthy life free of sypmtoms while still enjoying the food you love.

For more information visit the Celiac Disease Foundation website.

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