Although celiac disease was once thought to be a rare disease that only affected children, we now understand that it is a common and serious genetic, autoimmune disease that can develop at any age, affecting one percent of the world’s population. When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale), a harmful immune reaction occurs in the small intestine, damaging the villi, which are fingerlike projections that aid in absorbing nutrients. This immune reaction is the cause of more than 200 known symptoms that can occur in every organ in the body.
Although celiac disease can be diagnosed through a blood test and intestinal biopsy, it is estimated that only one in five Americans with the disease are diagnosed. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a related disorder, but there is no diagnostic test for it. People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity do not have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, but like people with celiac disease, they have improvement of symptoms when following a strict, gluten-free diet. While there are more than 20 companies investigating treatments for celiac disease, a strict, gluten-free diet for life is currently the only treatment. For many, the diet allows the villi to heal and lessens most symptoms.
Transitioning to a gluten-free diet
For celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitive patients, transitioning to the gluten-free diet may seem overwhelming and challenging at first, but it is a medical necessity. Untreated celiac disease can lead to additional serious health complications, including other autoimmune disorders, osteoporosis, infertility and miscarriage, and even cancer. Gluten is most commonly found in breads, pastas, baked goods, crackers and cereal, but it can also be hidden in foods like gravies, soups, dressings, soy sauce and much more. Patients quickly understand that there is a wide variety of foods that are naturally gluten-free, and when you go gluten-free, it is important to focus on what you can eat rather than what is now off limits. Thanks to the popularity of the gluten-free diet in the U.S., there are also a growing number of delicious gluten-free substitutes for nearly all traditional breads, pastas and baked goods.
Finding gluten-free meal options
If you are sticking to a gluten-free diet, you can enjoy eggs, breakfast meats, fruit and yogurt in the mornings. If you prefer cereal for breakfast, you can find cereals labeled “gluten-free” in most grocery stores. Gluten-free waffles and pancakes are also widely available, or you can make your own using a gluten-free baking mix. Gluten-free bread, bagels or tortillas can be used to make sandwiches for lunch, or you can choose to eat salad without the croutons or other wheat-based toppings.
There are also plenty of delicious gluten-free snack options, like gluten-free pretzels, popcorn and crackers to satisfy your cravings. Naturally gluten-free and cost-effective dinner options might include: meats, poultry, fish, tofu, veggies, beans, rice, potatoes and corn. Fruit is also naturally gluten-free, as are most dairy products, nuts and seeds.
It is important that people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity maintain a strict gluten-free diet as even trace amounts of gluten can trigger severe and prolonged reactions. Fortunately, gluten-free food and beverage options are becoming more diverse, more delicious and less expensive.