May Is Celiac Disease Awareness Month!

Tess Creamer, MS, RD, CSO, CD-N, Sodexo Registered Dietitian

Right now it seems like gluten-free foods are everywhere, and it has almost become a fad to follow a gluten-free diet. Gluten is a protein found in products made from wheat, rye, and barley. Unless you have celiac disease, there are no health benefits to eliminating gluten. However, for those diagnosed with celiac disease, following a 100% gluten-free diet is the only known treatment.

Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disease which impacts about 1% of the population, and up to 97% of those with celiac disease are undiagnosed. Celiac disease can develop and be diagnosed at any age, and it is prevalent across all races and genders. When a person with celiac disease consumes gluten in their food, it results in an immune response which causes damage to the lining of the small intestine and limits the absorption of nutrients in food.

Diagnosis of celiac disease is often delayed, with the average length of time to diagnosis being 4 years. This delay in diagnosis increases the risk of developing other autoimmune disorders, osteoporosis, infertility, neurological problems, and even cancer. Regular antibody testing is the first step to identify the presence of celiac disease, especially in at-risk populations such as those with a relative diagnosed with celiac disease, those with other autoimmune conditions, or with concerning symptoms (such as recurrent abdominal pain or bloating, chronic diarrhea or constipation, unintentional weight loss, or fatigue). Antibody testing should be followed by a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. It is important to still include gluten in the diet while waiting to be diagnosed otherwise this may effect for test results. Once diagnosed, it is essential to eliminate gluten.

Gluten is often a hidden ingredient in foods and even in some medications. Therefore, it is important to work closely with a dietitian while implementing a gluten-free diet. Even foods which don’t naturally contain gluten may become contaminated with gluten if they are not prepared, cooked, and stored properly. Avoiding gluten in the diet is important to help heal existing intestinal damage, prevent further damage, and help minimize any side effects. Gluten-free labeling on products is currently voluntary for manufacturers, therefore label reading is important to identify gluten-containing ingredients.

To get more information about celiac disease, diagnosis and treatment, visit the Celiac Disease Foundation.