You may not know exactly what gluten is, but by now you’ve at least heard of the word. The gluten-free diet movement has been around for well over a decade or two. It’s been touted by celebrities and fitness people alike for its seemingly healthier side. They say it’s a great weight-loss option. Aside from any reference to fad dieting, there are millions of people around the world that have no choice but to eat gluten-free foods.
The month of May is Celiac Disease Awareness Month. Celiac disease is triggered by exposure to gluten in the digestive system. Gluten is a protein molecule that is found in several types of grains; wheat, barley, and rye are the big ones. Gluten is also hidden in many processed foods that you may not know about (like regular soy sauce). You have to really know your foods if you’re going to avoid gluten.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition (meaning that your body’s immune system attacks itself). It is also genetic and frequently runs in families. Most symptoms of the disease are digestive in nature. You may experience bloating, gas, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting after eating a heavy gluten meal. Perhaps you don’t even think much of it and just live with your digestive issues. Most people with celiac disease are undiagnosed.
If you do have continuous digestive problems you should be evaluated for a gluten sensitivity or allergy. There are other things like lactose and food allergies that can cause digestive problems, and those should be ruled out as well. Celiac disease is not something to keep blowing off. Overtime, the inflammation caused by repeat exposure to gluten can damage the small intestine leading to malabsorption of nutrients. This is especially harmful to developing infants and children. It can lead to poor growth, anemia, loss of bone density, and many other problems.
Testing for celiac disease can be done with bloodwork to see if you have antibodies to gluten. You may be referred to a gastroenterology specialist that will perform an upper endoscopy to see if you have any damage to your small intestine. The only cure for celiac disease is the elimination of gluten. In fact, celiac disease is the only autoimmune condition completely reversible through diet.
Celiac disease is something very personal to me. I have it. I’ve been eating gluten-free for well over a decade, so I know how challenging it can be especially if you are recently diagnosed. Listen, the gluten-free industry has come a long way. I remember when I was first diagnosed and had to try and process how my life was going to change. Yes, there were plenty of tears and hopeless thoughts. I grew up in the Chicago area, home to (dare I say?) the best pizza in America. Pizza is like a gluten bomb, and the thought of not being able to have a Gino’s East or Lou Malnati’s pie ever again was devastating. And beer. And, just about anything. Those were some dark times for me.
But I stuck to it, year after year. My family was instrumental in my success. Especially my wife. Back when I first started out gluten-free there wasn’t any bread. Well, at least not anything that I would recommend for human consumption. Loaves of gluten-free bread were as dense as bricks and would crumble under the slightest pressure. Again, more tears. So, my wife learned about breadmaking and for a time that was the only way I had bread.
Today, you can find gluten-free bakery items and other foods at almost any grocery store. The downside is the cost of everything. You will spend 2-3 times the price of regular, gluten-containing foods. It can be challenging eating at restaurants and in social situations. It may feel like we celiacs are being punished for a disease outside of our control. But you have to be healthy and take care of your body, so what choice do we have. If you don’t need to be gluten-free for medical reasons, then I don’t recommend it. Save your money and just eat a healthier plant-based diet instead.
If you are diagnosed with celiac disease you need to spend the time educating yourself on the gluten-free diet. Make sure your family and friends know about your dietary restrictions. Support from family and friends is critical to your success!
For more information on celiac disease visit https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/celiac-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20352220.
Stay safe and be well,